By Daniel Johnson, Sports Editor
Four-time individual cross country champion Nicodemus Naimadu and the men’s and women’s cross country teams got a hero’s welcome when they returned from the national championships in Joplin, Mo. on Sunday.
As the team’s white travel bus braked in front of Elmer Gray Stadium, balloons, banners, cake, erratic car horns and more than 50 ACU cross country fans awaited the bus full of champions just a day removed from their run in Missouri – Naimadu won his fourth-straight and NCAA record individual championship, the men won their second-straight team championship and the women completed their goal by finishing in the top ten of the national meet.
“Last year it was just my wife and kids and my brother’s wife and kids, so this is great,” said head cross country coach Derek Hood.
Naimadu was the first off the bus and ran down the steps holding the men’s championship trophy above his head as silly string covered the senior from Narok, Kenya while his teammates followed.
“I think this is the best welcome that we have ever been welcomed at any event that we have gone to,” said a surprised Naimadu. “Not only for ACU winning for a second year in a row, but for my fourth championship accomplishment.”
Naimadu’s “accomplishment” secured him a spot in NCAA history; in a time of 29:39.7 he finished first at the national race for the fourth year in a row, something no athlete at any collegiate level has done.
Naimadu, who was coming off of a five-week knee injury, stayed with the other runners most of the way until there was about a mile left, then he made a move and took the lead.
“The only thing I didn’t know I didn’t know how my leg would respond so I had to stay until I could just how it would respond,” Naimadu said.
Once he broke away, Naimadu took a substantial lead and finished the race with a little flare – he lifted his arms for the last 200 or 300 meters as the small crowed cheered him to the finish line.
“He was flashing four fingers probably the last quarter mile and pretty much all the way down the track and everybody was giving him the recognition he deserved,” Hood said.
When Naimadu crossed the finish line, it not only passed the four athletes that have won three-straight, one of which was University of Oregon’s legendary runner Steve Prefontaine but helped the men to their second-straight title.
Matched with a third place finish from junior Julius Nyango, a sixth place finish from junior Serge Gasore a 29th place finish from sophomore Philip Birgen and a 30th place finish from freshman Amos Sang, ACU won the men’s team title with 59 points.
“It showed me that the good effort we put early in the morning training and working out, and being pushed by the coach really was worth it,” Naimadu said.
Adams State and Western (Colo,) State finished in a tie for second with 66 points and Grand Valley (Mich.) State was a distant third with 152 points.
The women finished seventh with 216 points, behind a second place finish by freshman Winrose Karunda, who was running in only her second meet attached to ACU.
“They’ve just done everything that we’ve asked to do trained hard and it’s paid off, we’re arriving back in Abilene with another championship trophy,” Hood said.