In Kenya, where vast open plains and long dirt roads rule the land, running is as much a part of culture as football in America. Every kid grows up dreaming of following in the footsteps of previous generations of great distance runners and Olympic Athletes.
For Brockton High School senior and Kenyan citizen Patriciah Mulinge, that dream is slowly becoming a reality. In the case of most high school athletes, the journey from youth to adulthood involves classes, friendships, sports, fun and homework. For her, it involved an 8,500-mile voyage and a new home.
Mulinge, a track captain, grew up in Kenya and arrived in the United States when she was 12 years old. The aspiring doctor speaks four different languages (if you include local Kenyan dialects), is an honors student and a Big Three Conference champion in the mile.
She runs cross country in the fall, and does primarily the one mile and two-mile races during indoor and outdoor track and field seasons. This practice, known as “doubling up”, is often difficult for most runners due to the high amount of endurance required.
“It feels great when I’m done running the race because at first I’m dreading doing it," she said. "But then I finish and I’m like, ‘Wow! That wasn’t that hard.’ During the race I’m usually thinking about the end of the race, especially the two mile. I will count each lap and tell myself, ‘you can’t give up now, you’re almost there.’ I will also listen to the cheers of my teammates and that helps me finish strong.”
The distance specialist first gained an interest in running while growing up in the open land of her Kenyan town. Whenever she had free time, she would run or walk several miles. Sometimes she did this with friends, while at other points she took advantage of the openness to run by herself. While much attention is given to the host of challenges Kenya and other underdeveloped nations face -- and with good reason -- Mulinge couldn’t imagine growing up anywhere else.
“I would say that Kenya is the best place to have a childhood. Here, you have the freedom and everything because it’s a free country, but in Kenya you get to do all these other things as well,” she said, smiling. “Right now, I can’t always leave my house and walk to my friend’s house because I might get into trouble. But in Kenya, I could walk 10 miles if I wanted to and no one would say anything. My neighborhood was like a suburban neighborhood here, except better because there was more land to do stuff. It was the best place to grow up.
“Where I grew up there wasn’t (poverty). But then I moved to a more desert area where there wasn’t as much water. But we didn’t have any starvation or anything like that. There are specific areas that the media focuses on and that’s what you see. But once you visit the country and see you’re like ‘wow.’ It’s a three-dimensional country. It has more than hunger and strikes and war to it.”
Kenya has a long history on producing excellent distance runners. This is a tradition that Mulinge would like to follow, but by making her own way.
“I don’t have a person that I look up to because if I look up to someone (as a runner) I will always compare myself to them and feel like I failed and not try again," she said. "I try to look at Kenya as a nation and how they are known for having famous runners. I want to be one of those runners. I was just want to be me and then run and have people look up to me. I know that sounds egotistical, but I want to just be me.”
Her mother first immigrated to the United States when Mulinge was seven years old, in order to pursue a job offer. For the next five years, Mulinge lived with her grandparents and saw her mother only once a year, during a visit each summer. By the time she reached the age of 12, her mother had saved up enough money to bring Patriciah and her younger brother to America.
Arriving in the United States for the first time is often a culture shock for many, and for Mulinge, it was a different world. She didn’t even know what a pizza was -- or a hamburger, for that matter -- let alone what a New England winter looks like.
“When I first came here I went to the Brockton Public Schools office and they have a test to place you. They gave me a book with pizza and hamburgers and I was just like ‘what is this?’” she said with a laugh. “So obviously, I failed at that test, but then I took a written test and I passed and was placed in seventh grade."
Although she admitted that she initially was homesick for Kenya and her hometown, she said she has grown to love living in America. And although McDonald’s was a big selling point, Mulinge is most happy with the opportunities living in her new home affords her.
“I like that I have opportunities that are open to me. Especially now, in such a progressive era, me being a woman of color I can do a lot of things that I couldn’t do in Kenya,” she said. “In Kenya, women are still seen as not the same or lower. If you are a woman and you are CEO of a company they assume you went to the devil for that. Here, I can be whatever I want and I get do-overs and second chances. If I mess up something I can turn over a new leaf and move on.”
The newness of American life extended into her academics and athletics. During seventh and eighth grade, Patriciah adjusted to life in America and focused on keeping her grades up while trying to make friends. This process was hampered a bit by the accent that she spoke with, along with some unfamiliarity with American culture, but by the time she reached high school she was ready to pursue her biggest passion: track.
“I met Patty her freshman year. She came to us to try out. I think actually someone came over to us and said ‘I have someone who just moved to the country and wants to try track’, so we went from there,” said Brockton High track coach Charles Russell. “I call her the ‘Beast from the East’ because when she first came here she was very tiny and thin but she had the heart of a lion.”
Immediately upon joining the track team as a freshman, Mulinge became one of the better distance runners on the team. Prior to her arrival, the Boxers’ track team did not have a strong presence in distance events, often losing meets directly because of it.
But her arrival changed all that. Brockton has consistently improved its distance showings, culminating in an undefeated (10-0-1) campaign in the indoor track season this past winter and a victory in the Big Three meet. She also finished third in the Atlantic Conference one mile and fourth in the two mile. The team is poised to have another great showing this spring after Mulinge hit personal bests in cross country this past fall (20:18) and in the mile (5:55) last spring.
As a team captain, she has demonstrated unique leadership skills all season. As a player, she has been nothing short of a coach’s dream. When asked what it is like to coach an athlete who has been through more life experiences than most adults, Russell was effusive in his praise.
“Patriciah is coachable. You ask her to do something and she does it. No questions why, no moaning and groaning,” he said. “I think that’s probably one of the best qualities she has. She works very, very hard. She is really committed to the team. She’s that silent leader on the team. She leads by example. She’s not a yeller or screamer kind of captain that is very vocal. She lets her performances lead by example.”
To her teammates, she is both a friend and a motivator.
“As a competitor she’s very nice, she never judges someone or underestimates them. She takes being a teammate very seriously,” said Sansha Alexis, a junior. “She’s really loyal. Even when she doesn’t like someone, she will never talk bad about them, she’s really an awesome person.”
Fellow junior Saran Fofana echoed a similar sentiment.
“She really does care about us. She’s really sweet. She listens to us and she just understands everything that people are going through or she tries too,” Fofana said. “She’s our best friend. She’s really sweet and she motivates us to go faster (on the track) and be the best we can be.
Being there for others has been a big part of Mulinge’s life. Whether it was helping her family or friends in Kenya or in the United States, Mulinge goes out of her way for those she cares about.
Last year, one of Mulinge’s relatives in Kenya, a beloved aunt, lost her battle with stomach cancer. Mulinge took a month off from school and track to fly to Kenya and be there for her a family and help her relatives put their lives back together. In an experience that she described as trying, she had to be away from her teammates and friends and was responsible for all missed schoolwork. That type of compassion doesn’t surprise her coach, who when told she wants to be a doctor, saw an obvious connection.
“That totally fits into who Patriciah is," Russell said. "She’s done everything academically. She’s an excellent student. Her character is beyond reproach. She’s kind, compassionate and all those characteristics would make her a very good doctor."
So far this spring, Mulinge has taken further steps forward towards her goals of being a doctor and running track in college. In Brockton’s first track meet of the spring on April 13, a victory over Falmouth, Mulinge posted a 6:03 mile and 13:07 two mile that helped propel Brockton to victory and her coach has consistently said that he believes Mulinge’s best races are ahead of her.
She has also begun a shadowing opportunity at Signature Healthcare in Brockton, which she describes as fun and interesting.
Her motivation for being a doctor is not money or prestige, but to help the people she cares about, on two continents. In her native country, many illnesses and disabilities lack the understanding and treatment that they are afforded in the U.S. Changing this is one of the main focuses of Mulinge’s potential career.
“I want to become a doctor around here but I also want to help build safe haven facilities for people in Kenya. The homeless, people with disabilities are homeless and that shouldn’t be,” she said. “People with mental illnesses are seen as crazy in Kenya and I want to educate people in Kenya that it’s not because their crazy, it’s because of biology. Biology did that to them and we can’t ostracize them. We need to help them get better as best we can and re-integrate them into society.”
Accurately portraying the impact Mulinge has had among her family, friends, teammates and coaches is nearly impossible. Her determination to succeed coupled with her perspective on life has molded her into an athlete and person that inspired everyone around her. Even opponents walk away from meets impressed with her skills, just as teachers and coaches walk away impressed with her kindness and work-ethic.
In a little over a month, Mulinge will walk across the stage at Marciano Stadium and receive her diploma. It will be just the next accomplishment in a life that so far has been filled with doing the extraordinary.