Riek finding solace as Viking
Oct. 18, 2011
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
By Andrew Lang, Bellingham Herald Sports Department
A dream of an education in the United States and an urgent need to escape a harrowing past presented Western Washington University's Dak Riek with a chance encounter to compete in a sport that has opened a world of opportunity for the Sudan native.
"If there is ever anything that is ever bothering me, I put on my shoes and take off," Riek said in a phone interview. "I use running as a medicine for me."
And Riek has suffered several tough doses of hardship.
Growing up in Sudan, Riek became engulfed in a civil war which took the lives of many of his friends and loved ones, including Riek's mother, during his adolescence.
After spending his youth as a first-hand witness to the tragedy occurring in his homeland and without the prospects of a promising future in Sudan's tumultuous climate, Riek and his family decided a move needed to be made.
"It was not safe at all to live there," Riek said. "If you were to go to school, they would try to bomb it."
Around 1999, Riek said relatives gathered enough money together to get him out of the hazardous situation he was surrounded by.
Riek moved to Egypt and stayed there for four years while waiting to get papers cleared for him to move to the United States.
Because of the 9/11 attacks, Riek said the process to approve his transition to the United States took an abnormally long amount of time. It was in Egypt, however, where Riek experienced his first joys of athletic competition.
"When I got to the U.S., I didn't know what sport I wanted to play," Riek said. "I tried playing soccer in Egypt, but I didn't want to play that in the U.S."
When Riek's papers finally processed he made the move to the United States and found himself living in Skagit County with his uncle. He began attending Burlington-Edison High School.
Riek knew he wanted to play sports and soon became enamored with a foreign sport called American football.
"I'd never heard of American football before," Riek said. "The first day of school (at Burlington-Edison) I saw kids playing football, and I thought they were fighting. But then kids at the school started telling me, 'No, it's a sport. You just throw the ball around.' They started showing me all sorts of stuff about it, so I wanted to play. At the time I was like 90 pounds, and when I told kids I wanted to play football, they would laugh at me and say, 'You're going to get killed.'"
Once football became an afterthought, cross country entered Riek's life.
Riek talked to the cross country coaches at Burlington-Edison and they told him he should come out for practice. Fortunately for Riek, his first run proved to be no indication of his actual potential.
"When I tried running the first time, I threw up," Riek said. "I couldn't finish the workout. The first 5K I ran was 30 minutes, but then I slowly cut that down to 25 minutes and then 20 minutes."
Soon, NCAA Division I colleges began realizing Riek's talent before he even understood his skill.
"I started to get pretty good before I moved to Everett (Mariner High School) my sophomore year when I was training with (former Western standout runner) Jordan Welling," Riek said. "Everyone was telling me, 'Man, you're getting really good.' During my sophomore year, UCLA sent me a letter and all my teammates were saying, 'Oh my gosh, you got a letter from UCLA!' I'd never heard of the school before. Then there was an article published on me saying I was the fastest runner in the state of Washington."
Eyeing an opportunity to compete at the Division I level, unfortunate circumstances crept back into Riek's life.
Due to a strong learning curve Riek had to overcome lower level English classes he took. Due to Riek's limited English speaking ability, his high school courses did not qualify for Division I eligibility.
Riek decided to attend community college with an agenda to received his associates degree, then transfer to a school with a more prominent running program.
But, once more, further setbacks transpired in Riek's web of ill fortune.
After striking up a strong bond with Spokane Community cross country coach Erik Anderson, Riek decided to attend the college.
It was at Spokane Community College where Riek suffered a career-threatening knee injury. Coupled with Riek's knee injury was the death of Anderson, who Riek looked up to, in a bizarre bowling alley accident.
"I decided to go to Spokane because they dominated at running," Riek said. "Erik Anderson talked me into it. He really wanted me to go to Spokane. When he passed away and I got hurt, I decided to leave."
Riek said he's never received a straightforward diagnoses on his ailing knee. Doctors told Riek he has everything from tendonitis to hip problems to back problems that are causing his knee pain.
But during this past summer, Western cross country coach Pee Wee Halsell took a risk on Riek's health and gave him the opportunity he had been searching for since he moved to the United States.
"He's a very talented young man," Western cross country coach Pee Wee Halsell said in a phone interview. "I learn more and more about him each day. He's only been in the program since the start of September. He's been out of running for a while because of injuries and wasn't able to utilize his talents to get his education."
Now receiving scholarship money, Riek is accomplishing what he left his embattled life for - a chance to earn an education.
"I never thought I could get a scholarship for (running)," Riek said. "I am thankful that I have this opportunity. It is important, because I came to this country to get an education, to get a degree, not to run, and I hope I can return to my country some day."
Riek has competed in just two races for Western this year as he continues to battle his stubborn knee, which Riek says is about 75 percent healthy. Most recently, Riek finished 12th at the 38th Annual Western Washington University Invitational at Lake Padden Saturday, Oct. 8. Riek finished the 10K race in a time of 32:14.
"I think (Riek) has a lot of talent and he uses that," Halsell said. "I think long distance running can help you in life pursuits, and I definitely think athletics can reach life pursuits."
Currently, Riek is contemplating a degree in communications or business.
"Western has a very respected reputation," Riek said. "The campus is beautiful here, and there are so many places to run. People are always friendly and always open to talking with you."
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