By any standard, it was warm in Eugene, Oregon on July 2, game-changingly so for the 24 women who shook their legs and jumped at the start of the Olympic Track Trials 10,000 meters.
In a selection race like this—top three make the Olympic team—time is less relevant, place is everything. Place and grit. A championship 10,000 meters favors the relentless grinder who accepts the inescapable heat and the inexorable depletion of reserves, like a kettle boiled dry, who can hold off despair at seeing the pack slowly pull away, and not give up. Because anything can happen.
Rochelle Kanuho, a slight figure and the only one in the field wearing a full singlet, shorts, and black crew socks, quietly worked away at the back of the main pack, 78 seconds per lap at 10 laps, at 16 laps, at 20. Some of the familiar faces and early leaders—Jordan Hasay, Kim Conley, Aliphine Tuliamuk—had fallen back, but surprisingly, Kanuho, impassive, was still there.
Surprisingly because Kanuho came into the race as the 18 seed, a relative unknown. As Molly Huddle—the overwhelming favorite out front—ratcheted up the pace (73 seconds per lap, 72 seconds per lap), the pack dwindled to five women with long and impressive resumes, strung out in single file, and Kanuho at the end of that line. Six-hundred meters to go, the pace was furious, arms clawed, faces grimaced. Except for #12, Kanuho. Scraping bottom and wringing it out, Kanuho closed in 70 seconds—the third fastest last lap of any competitor—for seventh place. She’d moved up 11 places from her seed position, and finished within 24 seconds of her personal best in conditions that left even seasoned pros staggering off the track.
Who is this Rochelle Kanuho?
“I transferred through a lot of elementary schools because we kept moving,” Kanuho said of her early years. “Apartment complexes, motels, trailers, sometimes with relatives. Growing up that way, I thought it was normal. Moving a lot, living in a motel—I didn’t really find that odd.”
Born and raised in the Flagstaff, Arizona area, she never lived with her seven half brothers and sisters, and didn’t meet her dad until she was 16. She’s of Native American and Mexican descent, with the last name of a stepfather who was out of the picture by the time she was five.
“So it was just kind of me and my mom,” she explained when we met in Eugene. “She was a high school drop-out—I think she dropped out sophomore year. That’s why we had such a hard life. She worked two or three jobs, at laundromats and convenience stores. For a while, she worked as a housekeeper at a motel—she got along with the boss really well, so he let us stay there. Being home alone when I was six and seven years old was hard; it’s scary being alone when you’re that young. The hardest part for me was my mom told me not to go outside—she was overprotective, and, well, if anyone had seen me outside they might have called Child Protection.”
Kanuho learned early on to take care of herself, play with whatever she had, and, once in school, that her life was not the norm. “I shouldn’t say I had friends over; I was the one spending nights at their houses. Moving all the time and living in a motel was normal for me, but I didn’t really want others to see that we were in a harder situation.”
Her introduction to sports came in the form of gifts from her dad—soccer balls or lacrosse equipment—and sporadic involvement in community sports. But there was never enough money, or they moved out of the area.
“In elementary school there was this sports club. I signed up for every sport they offered except cross country. I didn’t know what that was so I didn’t want to do it. This random lady came up to me and said, ‘I notice you didn’t sign up for cross country. How about if you try it and if you don’t like it you can quit.’ So I tried it—we just ran this big loop on the grass—and I ended up being really good at it. I beat all the guys. But I only did it for a couple weeks because we couldn’t afford it.”
Not yet topping 65 pounds in fifth grade, Kanuho struggled with the burden of responsibility, alternately justifying and resentful of her only parent’s inability to parent.
“My mom didn’t like me going outside when I was little for fear of me getting hurt, but over time being overprotective drew us apart. She was a little crazy too. I mean, she was under a lot of stress from work, but she got mad super easy. Like if I was washing dishes and I accidentally made noise, she got crazy mad over stuff like that. From being stressed out from work ... She wasn’t really a mom. When I got in trouble she didn’t say, ‘Oh that was wrong.’ I knew it was wrong; I had to teach myself.”
“I think when she dropped out of high school, she just got stuck at that age and never grew out of that immaturity …. All the moving was just my mom being my mom—kind of crazy. She doesn’t really think things through. She took me out of school all the time. I guess she was doing the best she could, but she could be really irresponsible, not putting my academics first. It was frustrating. Even as a kid I knew that to keep transferring, it’s hard for schools. And hard for me.”
Remembering her brief success in running, Kanuho was looking forward to running cross country at Coconino High School, but she missed most of the freshman cross country season because her mom wouldn’t schedule the physical she needed to participate in sports. Once she started cross country she was almost immediately the top runner, but was ineligible for the state meet because she’d missed the bus to regionals.
“We were living with an aunt in a trailer several miles out of Flagstaff. The bus left at 7 a.m. so I set my alarm for 6 but it didn’t go off or something. I woke my mom up and made her drive me to the meet but we got there just as the girls’ race was finishing.”
Sports became a year round thing for Kanuho in high school—cross country, basketball, and track. “It kept me out of trouble. I liked the friends you made. And I actually got to travel, like to Phoenix, but it was still fun. In seventh grade we moved to Oregon for a month—we drove there and back. That was the only traveling I had ever done. Also I didn’t like being home. I could go to school, play sports and be away from home longer.”
Kanuho went to state in cross country her sophomore, junior, and senior years, and the two-mile in track all four years, but it wasn’t her times or her running ability that impressed Diane Sorden—it was her grit.
“Rochelle has some natural propensity for running, but she works for every second,” said Sorden, a Coconino High School counselor and head track coach. “But beyond running, she’s just an exceptional young woman—resilient, genuinely grateful for everything she has. She has not had an easy life, but she never gives up.”
Sorden and Coconino’s cross country coach, Tsosie Taylor, saw something special in this tiny, quietly determined girl, and were the first adults in her life to fan the spark.
Come senior year, Kanuho hadn’t even considered college as an option—no one in her family had attended, they barely had money for food, her grades were good but not exceptional, and her cross country and track performances did not inspire recruiting calls. “Also, we didn’t have a phone,” she added.
“I wouldn’t not let her apply,” Sorden said. Sorden gathered all the paperwork, and though she couldn’t get needed information from Kanuho’s mom and dad to properly fill out a FAFSA, they sent off one application to Northern Arizona University. Kanuho received some scholarship but also had to take out student loans because she wasn’t officially homeless. Yet.
“I’ll never forget it,” Sorden said by phone from Flagstaff. “It was the morning of graduation. I drove Rochelle home to pick something up before we went to a lunch for first generation college students. Rochelle’s belongings were in a little heap outside the door, and her mom was gone. That was it. Rochelle had nothing.”
“My mom left,” were the only words Kanuho would spend on that event, instead focusing on how kind and helpful Sorden was in the life-changing transition to higher education. She lived with Sorden the summer before moving into the dorms at NAU.
Finding a spot on the cross country team was another story. Sorden brought Kanuho over to meet the D1 Lumberjacks’ head coach, Eric Heins, multiple times but, according to Kanuho, her times weren’t even good enough to walk on.
“I trained freshman year on my own, after classes and homework,” she said. “It was 8 or 9 p.m., the lights weren’t on, super dark on the track. I made up my own workouts, like, I wonder how fast I can do one lap, or two. Over the summer [between freshman and sophomore year] my high school coach, Tsosie Taylor, road bike next to me. I didn’t really know what to do—I’d just try to run for an hour or something like that.”
Sophomore year she ran with the NAU team but struggled, feeling dead tired. “I was the slowest runner by far—my 5000 on the track was over 20 minutes. The men’s team was really good, but Coach Heins didn’t have a lot of girls to choose from. That’s how I got on the team.”
Kanuho admittedly ate poorly, out of habit. After two solid years of “really bad running,” Heins ordered a blood test that revealed severe anemia. “Within the first week of taking iron supplements and eating healthier, I felt like a different person. It was crazy. In my first workout with the group [junior year], everyone was behind me, and they were like, ‘Who is this girl?’”
Kanuho finished out her last three years (including a fifth redshirt year) on full scholarship, the top distance runner on the team. Her resume included a degree in parks and rec management, a 16:12 5,000 meter best, 34:20 10,000, and a 46th place finish at the Cross Country National Championship. Again, decent for NAU, but hardly the makings of a pro career.
“I knew it was going to be hard [to make a living as a runner] but it was the only way I knew of living. I could struggle working some job, or I could struggle as a runner—what’s the difference? I just had this feeling, I know I can be good at this if I have proper training.”
The only post-collegiate training group that showed interest was headed by coach Scott Simmons, in Colorado Springs. He engineered gear and travel money through Boulder Running Company/Adidas, but the clincher was that Simmons invited Kanuho to live with his family rent-free. She thrived in the supportive atmosphere, physically and emotionally, fitting a 70 mile per week regimen around various jobs. And her running reflected that—within a year, she brought her 5000 meter time down from 16:12 to 15:25.
It wasn’t just the increased mileage and stable address that accounted for Kanuho’s success. “He [Simmons] supported me and encouraged me, he took care of me almost like a dad,” she said. “In the same way Diane [Sorden] was like a real mom—they both let me live [with them] and didn’t expect anything in return. I thought, This is what having a parent is supposed to feel like.”
At 24, she’d found a family of coaches—Sorden, Taylor, Heins, Simmons.
But outside the workouts, the training partners, and Simmons’ family, Colorado Springs’s conservative Christian culture grated on Kanuho. “I was running really well but was not happy outside of running. I started having bad workouts and realized if I stayed there, it might ruin my running career. I was scared—I wanted to keep running but I had to leave.”
She moved back to Flagstaff, a training mecca for distance runners because of its altitude and miles of soft trails, in January 2015, with Simmons’s blessing and promise to continue coaching from afar. After three months of solo speed workouts, deciding whether to adjust the workout on a bad day or plow through, Kanuho found that working out alone was not working out. In March 2015 she joined Northern Arizona Elite, a training group coached by Ben Rosario.
“There were a number of things I really really liked about Rochelle,” said Rosario. “She’d made a big jump in her first year out of college. That shows a lot of upside. She has beautiful form and, with her tiny frame, suggests she’s not prone to injury. And she was born and raised at altitude which is a huge advantage. Rochelle has definite ideas about what she’s doing; she questions things. I would say, she’s almost desperate to improve, in a good way. I honestly think she can be one of the best in the country. She’s nowhere near her potential.”
NAZ Elite is sponsored by shoe maker Hoka One One, so Kanuho gets gear, travel funds, and enough of a stipend to train full-time, no side job required. While some would call running, eating, and sharing an apartment with two roommates austere, Kanuho is living the dream.
“I wouldn’t call myself a religious person but I believe in God,” she said. “Everyone on this earth is here for a reason; everyone’s given a talent. My talent is running. I’m so in love with the sport, I figure if I’m that passionate, I can be good. If I work hard enough, I can be really good. I’m just a late bloomer.”