By MATT KOESTERS
Just over a month ago, Jeffersonville boys’ cross country coach Mark Felix wasn’t sure if he would have enough boys to field a team. But circumstances conspired to bring the Jeff skipper one of the best finds in years.
Amy Austin, the Jeff girls’ cross country coach and a phys-ed teacher at Jeffersonville High School, first noticed freshman Leonard Kwitonda during a volleyball game in one of her classes.
“He just had amazing athletic ability,” Austin said. “He was spiking (the ball), jump serving. I got to talking to him, and he said he played basketball, and I asked if he had run and he said no.”
Not yet, anyway.
Kwitonda, 15, first visited the United States with the Rwandan National Juniors’ Basketball Team. Because of security problems in his home country, Kwitonda decided to take asylum in Jeffersonville with his uncle. But he was new to America and knew little English. When Austin told Felix about Kwitonda, he knew they had to meet.
“I started speaking French to him, and he got a big smile on his face because it’s probably a relief for him to know that someone can understand everything he says,” Felix said.
The meeting gave Kwitonda something new, as well.
“I was very happy,” Kwitonda said. “I’ve never had a coach for anything except basketball.”
Kwitonda, who had already attended basketball practice for Jeffersonville, got Jeff basketball coach Tim LaGrange’s permission to give cross country a try and came to practice the next afternoon.
“The very next day he came to practice, and he didn’t even have shoes,” Felix said. “All he had was basketball shoes.”
But his lack of the proper equipment didn’t keep him from competing. Felix found an old pair of running shoes in the track equipment locker and gave them to Kwitonda. The 15-year-old phenom responded right away.
“He came out here the first day and just smoked everybody in all the sprints and all the workouts,” Austin said.
Kwitonda’s life since coming to America has been a series of adjustments. He’s had to become accustomed to speaking English as his first language. He’s had to adjust to the fast pace of American life. So with cross country, it was no surprise that he had to make a few adjustments to his game to be competitive on the field.
“The first couple of weeks, he was kind of raw,” Austin said. “He didn’t know how to pace himself. But once we got him settled in, he did great.”
“I learned everything, like running hard and fundamental drills,” Kwitonda said.
Kwitonda has only run in five meets since joining the Jeffersonville team, but he has made an impact in each one. He placed fourth in the Providence Invitational at Community Park on Oct. 9, and turned in another team-best fourth-place finish at the Hanover Sectional on Oct. 12, leading his team to the regional. Kwitonda will compete at the Brown County Semistate this Saturday after finishing 12th at the Crawford County Regional on Oct. 16.
“At first I was afraid he was going to quit cross country because of his love of basketball,” Felix said. “But he’s starting to see what great potential he has as a runner.
“I can’t wait to see him on the track, either.”
Kwitonda said he has had little trouble making the adjustment to American life.
“Now I’m learning English,” he said. “It helped me to know other languages, because here, I have my coach. He explains to me something I don’t understand in French. That helps me out.”
But it’s still a process, and Kwitonda and Felix continue to work together to help the young runner continue to improve.
“I grow each day, every day,” Kwitonda said. “I just try to do better at everything.”
“I really think he’s going to go far in track and field and cross country, whatever he decides to do,” Felix said. “If he decides to do both or if he decides to do basketball, whatever he decides to do he’s going to be good at it.”