Hunger Games

June 10, 2014

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By Jenna Marina

ORLANDO, Fla. ( -- She has walked on the Great Wall of China. She has rubbed elbows with LeBron and Kobe. She has gazed up at the grandeur of Big Ben. She has set and re-set her home country's 200M national record. She has competed in two Olympic Games before graduating college. Her favorite phrase in Dutch - one of three languages she speaks fluently - is "Ik heb honger."

"It means: `I'm hungry,'" UCF track and field junior Kirsten Nieuwendam said, "because I always am."

Yes, it appears so... in more ways than one.

Nieuwendam spent the first 16 years of her life living in Suriname.

At 64,000 square miles - or just shy of the size of the state of Florida - Suriname is the smallest sovereign state in South America. It is sandwiched between Guyana and French Guiana on the northern border of Brazil.

With its slow pace, multicultural population and fresh cuisine, Nieuwendam says it is an ideal vacation spot. She grew up active thanks to a mother who pushed her daughters into every physical activity available.

"She couldn't control our energy," said Nieuwendam, who, in addition to having an older sister, is a twin. "She used to put us in swimming, judo, anything she could think of to keep us busy."

With no actual track in her hometown, her club team trained on grass, sand or pretty much any other surface that they could find. After she gave distance events a try, her coach suggested she measure up against the sprinters one day at practice. She said she ran the 100 meters in 11.90, and in a blink, it seemed she had found her calling.

At 16, she made the decision to leave her family and move to the United States after a young couple from Suriname, who lived in Miami, offered to take her in. Impressed by her athletic abilities, they wanted to give Nieuwendam an opportunity to have it all - sports and an education.

Not surprisingly, she was apprehensive about the move.

"My mom had to talk to me multiple times because I would say yes, then say no. It wasn't like my family was moving with me. I was the only one coming to a foreign country and leaving everything that I had known for 16 years," she said. "My mom said, `It's an opportunity you have to take. People would fight for this spot.' And I'm like, `Go ahead and fight. I'm going to stay here and be happy.' But she got me on the plane."

Her new life came with its trials. Nieuwendam spoke little English and felt empty for months without her family. Eventually she adjusted, and she never allowed herself to miss a beat on the track, finishing runner-up in the 200M and fourth in the 4x400 relay in the state finals during her senior year at St. Thomas Aquinas.

She chose to attend Penn State, but when her sprints coach, Chris Johnson, left the program to become the associate head coach at Arkansas, she felt like she needed a change, as well.

Her first season with the Knights hasn't gone exactly to plan. She injured her back in October and it prevented her from going all out. That was, until, the weekend of May 29-31 when she traveled with the team to the NCAA East Preliminaries in Jacksonville as an alternate for the 4x400 relay team.

There were no guarantees that Nieuwendam would run to help the team punch its ticket to Eugene, Ore., for the NCAA Championships. But when head coach Jeanette Bolden called upon her prior to the qualifying race, Nieuwendam knew what she had to do.

"We talked about my role in her office before we left for the meet. She told me she knew it wasn't easy to be a cheerleader, but if she needed me, she needed to know I'd be ready to go," Nieuwendam said. "So I listened to her. While she was telling me I was going to run, I knew it was my chance, my opportunity to help the team. Coach Bolden had confidence (in the decision) and was calm about it, so that's all I needed."

Now the interdisciplinary studies major finds herself making her return to the NCAA Championships this week for the first time since earning second team All-American honors with Penn State's 4x400 relay squad in 2012.

She is one of seven Knights traveling to historic Hayward Field, the second-largest group in school history to attend an NCAA Championship meet.

"After a year like this, it feels good to do something good, and know I can walk away with something that was positive out of this season," she said. "It's about putting aside myself to be a team member, a team player."

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