CLIFTON PARK -- When Diane Nukuri started her professional running career as a teenager in her native country of Burundi, she didn't always have people around her who believed in her abilities.
"Being a female runner from Burundi, when they see you running, they think you're crazy," she said.
Nukuri, 33, shared her story with sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students at Shenendehowa's Acadia Middle School on Wednesday. She told them how, with persistent training and effective coaching, she began to master the art of running -- doing a 4-minute mile at her fastest speed and competing in the Olympics three times.
Nukuri is in the area to compete in Saturday's Freihofer's Run for Women. She was at Acadia as part of the Freihofer's Run for Women Athlete School Visitation Program, an initiative started in 1993 to give youths a chance to meet athletes and hear about goal-setting techniques, trips to the Olympic games, and healthy eating and regular exercise habits.
Last year, Colorado runner Melody Fairchild visited Acadia.
As students asked Nukuri questions about her background, her training regimen and her favorite events to compete in, a common theme emerged: Nukuri, as a woman in Africa, was not expected to find success as a runner when she started at age 15.
She grew up in a village, and her home was at the top of a large hill, she said. Every day on her way home, she would run up the hill. As a child, she described herself as being filled with energy and very active, dabbling in soccer and basketball before stumbling into running.
When she was a teenager, a teacher at her school noticed her talent and began to coach her seriously. Growing up without intense pressure was beneficial for her, she said, and she told the students in the room that she hoped they had similar childhood experiences.
"You could just be whoever you wanted," she said of her youth.
While Nukuri said she enjoys running with both men and women, she described the Freihofer's run as a way to celebrate and embrace women and emphasize equality. She also noted it is especially important for young girls to realize they have a right to pursue their goals.
There will be 3,500 women participating in the race on Saturday.
Nukuri also said it is crucial for young girls to have a person to rely on for help when they need it, and someone to guide them through their lives and support them as they work toward goals.
"I'm very comfortable talking about it. I want them to feel comfortable asking questions," she said of the students. "I went through this, and honestly, when I was going through this, I didn't have my mom or my sisters. I had to either figure some things out on my own, or my teammates or friends were there for me. So I want them to be comfortable with asking. I want them to know they can talk to their mom, or friends, or sisters."
And as a professional athlete, Nukuri said, it's up to her prove to both adult women and young girls that it is possible to be comfortable in their own skin.
"I love being part of the women's race because, to me, it's like a celebration," she said. "There's probably a lot of women who don't think, 'I should go out and run.' Seeing us run in our little uniform, it's not like we always feel comfortable wearing that, but you know what? This is my job. I'm going to go there, and I'm going to show that you can do whatever you want. You can wear whatever you want as long as you're comfortable. So for me, it's about that empowering."
Saturday's race will come with several road closures: From midnight to 2 p.m., all roads in Washington Park will be closed, including Henry Johnson Boulevard between State Street and Madison Avenue.
From 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Washington Avenue from South Swan Street to Lexington Avenue will be closed, Western Avenue from Washington Avenue to Lake Avenue will be closed, Robin Street from Washington Avenue to Western Avenue will be closed, and Sprague Place from Washington Avenue to State Street will be closed.
Henry Johnson Boulevard from Central Avenue to Madison Avenue will also be closed, as will Lark Street from Elk Street to State Street.