Bitok establishes national power (Feature)

By Louie St. George III
The Daily Times

SHIPROCK — The collection of portraits, plaques, trophies and time charts adorning Abraham Bitok’s office walls paints an impressive picture of success.

Bitok’s modest office, tucked away in the back corner of the Diné College campus, lends evidence to the rich running tradition that Bitok has helped mold at Diné. Five U.S. College Athletic Association (USCAA) men’s national championships; three national Coach of the Year awards; recognition as one of the top 10 “Most Caring Coaches” by USA Weekend; numerous trophies and plaques for first-place finishes at meets across the southwest.

The most recent addition to Bitok’s collection came when the Diné College men won their fifth USCAA national championship in six years on Oct. 27 in Buena Vista, Va. The DC women finished second, the best performance in the program’s four-year history.

“Part of the reason (for our success) is that we have talented kids, but we also have kids that train hard,” said Bitok, who has coached the Diné cross country team since 2001. “These kids train hard, man. They train twice a day and become extremely disciplined.”

Does winning ever get old?

“It’s a never-ending cycle. It’s different ... there is a uniqueness to it each year because you win with different students and the experiences are different.”

What remains unchanged is Bitok. The coach attended Diné on a running scholarship after leaving his native Kenya in 1991. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s in physical education and health. In addition to coaching the Warriors, he is DC’s athletics director and teaches physical education and health courses.

Accommodating and sincere, Bitok’s relationship with his athletes exceeds the typical coach-athlete dynamic. His runners drop by his office to talk and kill time between classes. They sit at his desk, some use his computer. His door is always open.

And while Diné’s reputation as a national running power is a source of immense pride at the school’s campus, Bitok is more apt to talk about his program’s academic success.

“My goal is right now, I have 16 kids, and at the end of the semester did all 16 pass their classes,” he explained. “We have a 100 percent retention rate and I take it real personal if I see kids drifting away.

“That is extremely important to me. I recruit students and make them athletes. It’s not the other way around. That’s why they’re called student-athletes.”

Shantell Willie, a 2006 graduate of Shiprock High School and one of Bitok’s athletes, said studying comes before running at Diné.

“It (academics) is more important because if we don’t study we don’t run,” said Willie, who finished ninth at the national meet in Buena Vista with a time of 27:47. “He (Bitok) has talks with each one of us and tells us what he expects and we just have to do it. He really makes sure we stay on top of our studies.”

Success breeds ... more success
Like Bitok, first-year runner Jacob Kirwa hails from Kenya. Kirwa arrived in Shiprock in late August. Two months later, he’s a national champion after running a time of 27:01 in the 8K race in Buena Vista — but not without some adversity. Kirwa trailed four runners late in the race after bad directions from a course marshal preceded a wrong turn. With a mile to go, he got back on track and ran the final mile in a remarkable 4:10.

“I’ve dedicated myself to running,” said Kirwa, who is eyeing a career in business administration. “I had the wish of coming here and I was able to come to Diné. I’m getting an education, and at the same time I’m running.”

Kirwa was one of four DC men to garner All-America status, which is achieved by finishing in the top seven at the national meet. Tony Perez, who finished third, Aaron Johnson (fifth), and James Nduati (seventh) also ended the season as All-Americans.

Lynette Dennison led the DC women by finishing eighth with a time of 27:45, followed by Willie, who hails from Sanostee. Blaire Belle Maryboy was 11th at 28:31 and Maureen Tomasiyo’s 28:46 led to a 12th-place finish.

Willie cited Bitok’s persistence as the primary reason she ended up at Diné.

“I’ve known Coach since he first came here and he kept bugging me to come over here, and he’s given me this opportunity,” she explained. “The main reason I came here was because of Coach.”

Bitok’s philosophy, simple by nature, centers on hard work and camaraderie. Two weeks prior to the start of classes, his athletes undergo what Bitok called a time of “team-building.” They train together, eat together and prepare for the school year together. With such a diverse group of kids, this time allows the Warriors to develop a comfort zone with one another.

“A lot of these kids are fresh out of high school and are coming to the dorms and living away from home for the first time,” Bitok said. “Those two weeks are about building trust. It really helps.

“By the time we actually start running, they all want the same thing.”

What they want, presumably, is to win. And with five national titles in six years for the men, and a second-place finish for the infant women’s program, Diné shows no signs of slowing down.

Nor does Bitok. A week after returning from Buena Vista, the coach was back on the recruiting trail headed for Phoenix.

“I’m already thinking of next year,” Bitok said.

Like he said, it’s a never-ending cycle.