RCW: The rise of Sharon Lokedi
The 8,283 mile journey from Eldoret, Kenya to Lawrence, Kansas has been a long one, but throughout all of the ups and downs, Sharon Lokedi has found herself at the top of the Kansas cross country program.
The rise of the sophomore All-American began with the first collegiate meet she ever competed in when she finished first overall at the 2015 Rim Rock Classic. The rest of her successful freshman campaign included taking third at the NCAA Midwest Regional and placing 10th at the NCAA Championships, marking the highest individual finish ever by a KU female at the national championship meet.
Lokedi has been the Jayhawks’ lead female runner in all nine meets of her collegiate career. In eight of those nine competitions, she placed in the top-10. This season, Lokedi already made history with her victory at the Big 12 Championship meet. Her first-place finish was the first individual league title in the history of the Kansas women’s program. After placing second overall at the Midwest Regional last weekend, Lokedi will race in the NCAA Championships on Saturday, Nov. 19, where she will fight to end her sophomore season as a national champion.
Although it seems like KU has been the perfect fit for Lokedi, the path from Kenya to Kansas was not always clear.
Growing up, Lokedi hadn’t always planned on attending school in the United States. But in high school, her interest in traveling abroad for college began to peak.
“I had a friend who was graduating from high school who applied to the States and he told me it was good,” Lokedi recalled. “I had also heard from a few other people and they started to tell me, ‘Hey you can do it. Once you graduate you can go to college in the United States and run there.’ I began to think it was maybe a possibility.”
But after graduation, Lokedi was still unsure about what to do. She didn’t know if she should stay in Kenya with her family or travel to an unknown place where she didn’t know anyone. Ultimately, this uncertainty led Lokedi to take some more time before making a decision. She took a break from running and attended a school in her home country while she weighed her options. It was during this time that she finally decided what she wanted to do.
“I would see pictures of people in America and I realized it was my dream. You see [America on] TV, you see pictures and I was like, ‘One day I will go there,'” she said.
Additionally, this time reinforced just how much Lokedi loves running. She thought she should give it up to focus on school, but after missing the sport, she knew she wasn’t ready to be done.
“When you’re used to running it’s something that’s in your blood, so you want to keep going,” Lokedi said. “I felt disappointed that I wasn’t running and I knew that I had to go back to what I love doing the most.”
After she chose to run again, Lokedi attended a training camp to start preparing for a collegiate athletic career. She wanted to get in shape before applying to universities in the U.S.
Applying to college is a stressful process for nearly everyone, but it is especially hard when the only accessible information about each school must be gathered strictly online.
“I didn’t know where to go, so I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just apply and see which one I get into,'” she said. “I would go online and look at pictures and try to see the different running programs and academics each school had to offer. In the end, there was just something about Kansas.”
While she wasn’t able to meet with the coaches face-to-face, they did communicate through e-mail and several phone calls. This helped her inch closer to choosing Kansas over her other options.
“The coaches were really nice,” Lokedi said. “They would check on me to see how I was doing and ask about my training program. You could just tell that these were people you could relate to very well.”
As she tried to gather any last information about KU, others informed her that they would not be able to make the final decision for her, but they did try to warn her about the frigid temperatures in the Midwest.
“People would tell me, ‘It’s so cold there!’ I was like, ‘Well, I don’t care. I’m just going to go there anyway. This is my final decision,'” Lokedi laughed. “We don’t have winter in Kenya, so I’d never seen snow in my life. I should have listened to them because when I got here, it was January and it was way too cold.”
Adjusting to the unpredictable weather of the Midwest was tough for Lokedi, especially when it came to outdoor practices.
“There was this one day when we went to practice in the morning and I didn’t have my gloves on. It was sunny outside, so I was like, ‘Oh, it must not be that cold.’ But after I stopped running, I couldn’t even move my hands,” Lokedi recalled. “I tried warming them up but I couldn’t. I actually started crying because I was like, ‘I want to go back home. This is not what I expected.’ Eventually I got used to it, it just took time.”
Lokedi participates in both cross country and track & field for the Jayhawks, but her favorite of the two is cross country. She prefers the one-way race over running in circles.
“In cross you can see where people are and you can see where you should go. You are able to see where you need to start moving or speeding up,” she said. “There’s also more scenery. Maybe there are trees, it might be downhill or uphill. Most people don’t like that but for me that’s what I like because I know that’s where things may happen. It’s painful, but those are turning points where things can change in a race.”
To those on the outside, it may seem like Lokedi effortlessly slid into a prominent role on the Kansas team, but in reality she has had to overcome many obstacles in her transition to America. On top of combating the freezing cold temperatures, she had to deal with learning a new language, eating new food, and adapting to an entirely new culture.
Even Lokedi’s actual trip to Kansas from Kenya was not a smooth traveling process. She flew from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, to Chicago, where she was set to then fly to Kansas City. She thought her flight out of Chicago was supposed to leave the same night she arrived, but that wasn’t the case. The airline’s record showed something different, causing her to spend the night in the airport.
“I didn’t have anything, not even a phone,” Lokedi said. “I just sat there in the airport all night. I couldn’t even sleep because I didn’t know what time it was. Once I got to my gate, I just stayed there and waited. I couldn’t call my parents and I couldn’t even buy a snack. I had money, but I didn’t know how the U.S. dollar worked so I didn’t know how to pay for it. Plus I didn’t want to go anywhere because I was afraid that I would get lost. So I just stayed there until it was time for my plane to take off at like 8 a.m. It was scary.”
Luckily, KU assistant coach Michael Whittlesey was at the airport to pick Lokedi up when she finally arrived in Kansas City.
“I was wondering if I would get here and nobody would be here to pick me up since I didn’t have a phone,” Lokedi said. “But I got to the airport and he was waiting for me, then we drove to Lawrence. It was hard because I couldn’t communicate that much since I didn’t know a lot of English. We did learn English in high school, but we didn’t speak it that much. Once we got out of class we went back to speaking our native language.”
Getting used to food in a different country is another everyday challenge Lokedi had to face.
“I couldn’t eat food when I first got here because I didn’t know what anything was,” she said. “I would go to the cafeteria and just stare at everything. It all looks so different and I didn’t know what to do.”
One step at a time, Lokedi began to get accustomed to her new home with the help of her coaches and teammates.
“Before I came, I wondered if when I got here [KU] people would not be that nice, but everyone has been so kind and helpful,” she said. “I would go to practice and people would always talk to me. Sometimes I didn’t know what they were saying so I would just nod my head and smile, but they accepted me. I know it was hard for them and it was hard for me too, but I was able to relate to them really well.”
Lokedi also had fellow Kenyan and senior cross country runner Daniel Koech to help her out. Having been through a similar transition, he was able to provide support and advice.
“Daniel has really done a lot for me,” she said. “He was the one who helped me get a phone, or sometimes I would use his phone to call because he already knew how to dial home. He helped me get used to things here and he would also translate. Sometimes I would hear someone say something and then I would go ask him, ‘What did they say?’ He has been so nice and a huge help.”
At the time, Koech didn’t feel like he was doing a great service, it was simply natural for him to want to help. He had no idea how much his guidance meant to Lokedi.
“I didn’t know it would be that important,” Koech said. “I wanted to help her since I’m from Kenya and she’s a Kenyan, too. But I didn’t know she would remember that or give me any credit.”
Having gone through a similar transition himself, Koech wanted to make sure Lokedi didn’t have to face any challenges alone.
“It’s a hard transition moving to a place where you don’t know anyone at all,” he said. “When I came here, I had people who looked after me. There were several guys on the team who showed me the way and helped me with everything. So when Sharon got here, it was important for me to help her, especially since we speak the same native language.”
Even though it is obvious that Lokedi is a talented athlete, she did not anticipate becoming the cross country team’s top runner and fulfilling such a key role; but with guidance from her coach, that’s exactly what has happened.
“I didn’t expect that,” she admitted. “I didn’t know how the weather and everything would affect me once I got here. Coach (Whittlesey) has helped me a lot. Everywhere we go he would tell me, ‘Sharon I want you to do this.’ He helped me get used to the practice program and he would show me what he wanted me to do and where he wanted me to be. I think the program that he put me in is what has gotten me this far.”
Lokedi also gives credit to her teammates for pushing her to reach her fullest potential.
“We practice together all the time and they help motivate me,” she said. “If it wasn’t for them, I don’t think I would be where I am right now. They are there for me when I need them. That has been one of the biggest things that has helped me this far.”
She has returned the favor by also helping motivate her teammates. They work together and encourage each other to put forth their best effort.
“Anytime you have an athlete that’s at that national level, it’s that target that everybody else can use in practice every single time. ‘Hey if you want to be really good, that’s the type of commitment or that’s the type of performance you’re going to have to continue to shoot for,'” Whittlesey said. “That target is absolutely motivating for everybody else.”
Lokedi’s competitive spirit has propelled her to that national level, always striving to be better than the day before.
“When she doesn’t win, she’s a woman on a mission,” Whittlesey said. “Her aggressiveness in practice on a daily basis is that of someone who is really focused on winning. That determination is what’s going to separate the individuals who have a chance to win and be in the top-10 on a national scale.”
The responsibility that comes with continuing to prevail as KU’s lead runner is something Lokedi does not take lightly.
“When you have people watching you, there are people who might say, ‘Oh, if Sharon can do better, maybe I can also do better,'” she said. “Whatever I’m doing, I make sure that I am pushing them [her teammates]. I do not do it just for myself, but for my team. We all benefit from what we give in practice and competition.”
Lokedi has already earned several major accolades, which includes attaining All-America and Big 12 Champion status, but her success only leaves her hungry for more.
“Those are the things that give me motivation. Every day when I practice I think, ‘I have a goal. I have something to achieve. I want to do better than I did last time.'”
However, for being such a competitive athlete, that competitiveness does not necessarily reflect who she is as a person.
“Sharon is a very special person. And I don’t mean a very special runner, she’s a special person,” Whittlesey said. “She’s very sweet. It’s easy to work with her because she really cares about people. She cares about the team and she cares about the other individuals.”
That compassionate nature is what made Lokedi become a community health major. She aspires to use her degree to improve the lives of other people.
“If I choose to go back home, I know I will be able to help people in my community and in my society,” Lokedi said. “I come from a village that is not that well-developed, but I know that with my major (community health) if I end up going back there, I will have a positive impact and try to help people. I can teach them about their health and other things they don’t know that are new to them, but that they need to know.”
She also wants to be a source of inspiration to others back home who are thinking about studying in the United States. Lokedi is hopeful that they will look at her experience and want the same thing for themselves.
“It’s been so fun here and I really enjoy it,” she said. “I have three younger sisters in high school and it’s something I want to motivate other people to do. I want them to work hard and try to come here to study, too, to get an education. Every time I get a chance I’ll talk to my friends back in Kenya and try to encourage them. If there’s any way I can help others apply to schools or go to college in the U.S., I want to.”
Before Lokedi utilizes the knowledge from her community health degree to assist others, she has more to accomplish during her time at Kansas while she is still wearing the Crimson and Blue.
“I’d love to get my team up there to be conference champions. We can even be regional champions, national champions. That’s what I have in mind. I want to be a national champion before I graduate,” Lokedi said. “I will do whatever it takes and work as hard as I can. I will try to support my team as best as possible and make sure that we are all working to achieve that goal.”
Her coach has the same dreams for Lokedi and he believes they are definitely attainable.
“She wants to win the big races and I don’t see why that shouldn’t be one of her goals. It absolutely should be,” Whittlesey said. “There’s still certain things that we’re going to have to continue to work on for her development as an athlete, but she has shown us her toughness and her desire. One thing about Sharon is that typically, if an athlete beats her once, they don’t beat her if she sees them a second time. That’s the sign of a champion. Someone who says, ‘Hey you got me once, but I’ll get you the next time.'”
With so much uncertainty at the beginning of her journey, both Lokedi and Whittlesey confessed that while they did as much research as they could and utilized all the resources available to them, there was really no way to ensure that KU would be a good match for her.
“We double and triple checked, but ultimately we just had to hope for the best,” Whittlesey said.
Though Lokedi’s journey this far has been full of ups and downs, it’s safe to say that the leap of faith was worth it – and she’s only getting started.