How A Former NCAA Champ Is Trying To Rescue Her Child From Africa

Rather than sitting around and hoping something will happen, Missy Rock is running a marathon this weekend to help bring her fourth child home. Courtesy Missy Rock

Missy Rock's mind is a world away when she steps out her front door for a training run. The multiple-time NCAA champion, formerly Missy Buttry, passes rows of well-kept houses in her suburban neighborhood just outside Minneapolis as she makes her way to a sprawling park. She logs workouts on miles of trails that travel along the shores of a quiet lake and through the prairie and woodlands that are showing signs of the changing season. The last warm lingering breezes of summer send vivid leaves airborne around her, but she hardly notices.

All she can think about is Tina.

Five-year-old Tina -- who was adopted by Rock and her husband, Andrew, nearly two years ago -- remains in an orphanage in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Surrounded by concrete walls and rubble, Tina and 40 other children live in a place that has few beds, forcing most to sleep on the ground. While the orphanage's staff does its best to care for the children, funds allow only for a single meal even on a good day.

Although Tina possesses an American visa and the Rocks have legally adopted her --both the American and DRC governments recognize them as her parents -- the DRC is withholding exit letters from all adopted children for reasons few understand. This means that the Rocks, along with about 200 other families, are stuck in limbo, unable to bring their children home.

"September 30 was the second birthday of Tina's that we have missed since adopting her," Missy Rock, 31, said. "We send her presents, we write letters and we have pictures of her, so I think she has an idea that she has a family, but having been abandoned in an orphanage, we don't know if she really understands what a mom and a dad even is."

Over the past two years, Rock has pleaded with members of Congress, interfaced with DRC government officials and networked with other frustrated families. Still, she always felt there had to be something more she could do. Giving up when things get tough has never been her style.

A reason to run

A three-time individual national champion in cross country at Wartburg College in Iowa, as well as the holder of 11 track titles in individual and relay events, Rock knows a little something about patience, persistence and pushing forward even when the path isn't easy. Andrew, a gold medalist in the 1,600-meter relay at the 2004 Athens Olympics, isn't one to back down from a challenge, either. That is why, just when the two-year mark for waiting to take Tina home was staring them in the face, daring them to lose hope, the lightbulb went on in Rock's mind. Why not leverage one of her greatest natural gifts?

She would run for Tina.

Running a marathon had always been on Rock's radar, but after competing professionally for several years after college, she encountered a slew of injuries. Then priorities shifted when she and Andrew adopted their first child, Athulya, now 6 years old. The couple brought her home from India when she was 22 months and weighed just 14 pounds. Although she was extremely malnourished and doctors said they didn't know if she'd ever be able to walk, they plucked her off their adoption agency's waiting list for hard-to-place children. With Athulya not only walking but also running and playing, the couple later had two biological children, Isaiah and Josiah, now 3½ years and 11 months old, respectively.

Throughout it all, the thought of running the 26.2-mile distance continued to rise to the top of Rock's mind. In the spring of 2014, she registered for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon, and soon after had the idea to set up a GoFundMe page not only to raise awareness for the situation in the DRC, but also to bring in a new source of funding to help improve the conditions in the orphanage where Tina and the other children live.

Coming full circle

Rock herself hails from a family of 14 children (she's the third-oldest), 11 of whom were adopted. Her brothers and sisters are from South Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, Alabama and Iowa.

Ask any of her teammates or competitors on the NCAA Division III track and cross country circuits, and the Buttry family couldn't be missed. Arriving in a van to her meets, often wearing shirts her mother made that read, "Missy's Fan Club," Rock's younger siblings were seen at every turn.

"It was pretty funny because they knew all my competitors' names and everything about track early on," she said. "They were definitely my biggest supporters out there."

So when the Rocks started their own family, there was no question that they themselves would adopt. "I never saw my biological and adopted siblings any differently," she said. "I think one of the most beautiful ways to build a family is to give a child a home who wouldn't have had one otherwise."

Although they are well-versed in the delays that often accompany the adoption process, the wait to bring Tina home has been painstaking. "It's hard knowing your daughter is somewhere she gets one meal a day and sleeps on concrete each night," Andrew said. "And it's just red tape getting in the way of bringing her home."

Running for Tina has turned out to be an empowering experience for both Missy and her husband. "For most of her running career, she's always had titles to chase and records to break, but this is about running for a cause that's bigger than her," Andrew said. "I haven't seen this sense of joy she is experiencing from training for a long time, so it's pretty exciting to see her passion coming out all while running for Tina and the other children."

While much has changed when it comes to Rock's running ambitions, she still aims to run Sunday's race in under three hours. As the race nears, Rock rises each day thinking not about prize money or pace projections, but rather, "Could this be the day we get word we can bring Tina home?" It is faith in knowing the call will come that keeps her putting one foot in front of the other.

"In the moments that things get tough, especially when putting in long mileage, I think of Tina and the other kids and remember nothing compares to what they are going through," she said.

Said Andrew: "Ten years ago, if Missy would have been doing this, she would have been talking about training to win the race. Now the driving force behind her training and racing is to do it for our daughter."