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Former Pacific All-American takes on Olympic sized project

Kelsey Owens joins former Uganda Olympian Julius Achon to aid his country


As she has done many times over the course of the last few years, Kelsey Owens headed to the Nike World Campus in Beaverton in late May for another training session on the footwear giant’s track.

Thanks in part to her friendship with her former Northern Arizona University teammate, Olympian Lopez Lomong, Owens planned to get in some speed work to keep in shape. What she didn’t expect was a chance meeting with another Olympian whose story would affect her life forever. 

Julius Achon is a two-time Olympian for war-torn Uganda, a rare hero from a country where success is measured in finding fresh water or basic medical care. Honored by Runner’s World Magazine as one of its 2012 “Heroes of Running,” Achon has parlayed his dream into a chance to help people in his home village of Awake (pronounced Uh-Wah-Kee) know their dreams of water, lights and a doctor through his Achon Uganda Children’s Fund.

After that meeting, Owens, a 2007 cross country All-American for Pacific, put her energy into helping organize a fundraiser to complete a medical center named in memory of Achon’s mother. The concert and auction, featuring Tom Grant, took place Friday, Aug. 10, at the Arista Ballroom in Portland.

Owens rallied members of the Forest Grove community around Achon’s cause, securing silent auction donations from The Friendly Vine, Montinore and Patton Valley vineyards, Posh Premium Handmade Soaps, Frye’s Action Athletics and Pacific University athletics. Several individuals, including Pacific University President Lesley Hallick, made financial donations.

While that initial meeting between Owens and Achon appeared to be chance, both are convinced it was meant to be.

“When God has favor in you to connect you with other people, it becomes a miracle,” Achon said. “Meeting Kelsey has been great. When I told her about this project, she did not hesitate.”

Likewise, Owens believes that the struggles she has experienced in her running career have led her to her work with the Achon Fund. “If I had followed a different path,” she said, “what are the chances we would have met?”

A CAREER OF STRUGGLE

When Owens transferred to Pacific in 2006, she was an athlete looking for answers to a promising career that had mysteriously headed south. A good enough high school athlete to land a partial scholarship at Division I Northern Arizona, Owens came to Forest Grove full of potential.

But despite a high school best of 19:31 in the 5,000-meter distance during her prep days in Tacoma, the best Owens could manage was 20:59 for the same distance on a Willamette Invitational course in Salem known for producing fast times. She made it through the first two weeks of the 2007 track season before her junior campaign was completely shut down by injuries.

Not knowing what ailed her sent Owens into a tailspin. She not only considered leaving running behind, but also Pacific. “As a college athlete, you have a sense of entitlement that everything should fall into place. When it doesn’t, it’s frustrating,” Owens said.

Off-season medical tests recommended by former Pacific coach Grier Gatlin and Head Athletic Trainer Linda McIntosh provided a life-changing discovery. Owens suffered from anemia, a disorder that reduces the amount of iron in one’s blood stream. She was slow because her body lacked a key nutrient an athlete needs.

With treatment for her anemia, Owens flourished on the track. In November 2007, Owens became Pacific’s first cross country All-American when she finished 34th at the Division III National Championships in Northfield, Minn.

Before her career was over, Owens would own school records in the 800, 1,500 and 5,000 meters as well as Pacific’s second fastest times in cross country at 5,000 and 6,000 meters.  

Physical change and confidence came on the track, but it was on one of Pacific’s well-known study abroad trips that Owens said her life was truly transformed. On a summer 2008 trip to Ghana sponsored by Pacific’s Humanitarian Center, Owens experienced the plight of people in the third world. She witnessed first-hand the effects of malnutrition, a lack of water and a lack of medical care. It was a baptism by fire.

“It absolutely wracked my sense of who I am in the world and what I am doing with my life,” Owens said. “When you learn how other people live, how other people get through their day and how they feed, or can’t feed, their families, your whole compass changes. It reorients you.”

Since that time, Owens continued her work at Pacific as an administrative assistant in Pacific’s School of Professional Psychology. She continued to run competitively and continued to take part in international humanitarian trips, including one in 2010 to Haiti. It was both passions that provided a meeting with Achon and a chance to learn a story that wracked her sense of being once again.

 

RUNNING FOR HIS LIFE

Julius Achon’s story is one of survival, success and inspiration. A survivor of the continual civil war in Uganda, Achon was abducted at age 12 by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group known for kidnapping children and forcing them to fight. He managed to escape three months later, but watched nine of his friends lose their lives after they were mistaken for rebels themselves.

Achon made his way back to Awake, sneaking into the local elementary school because his family could not afford the $15 yearly tuition. He kept the ritual up for a year until he entered a track meet at school, easily winning three events. Achon qualified for the district meet in the northern Ugandan city of Lira, covering the 42 miles on foot in eight hours because he had no transportation.

The next day Achon won all three of his events: the 800, 1,500 and 3,000 meters, fueled by a lunch of sugar cane. From there it was on to the Ugandan national meet, and a victory in the 1,500 meters brought with it a scholarship to high school in the capital city of Kampala and a running career that made him a hero.

Achon represented Uganda in the 1994 World Junior Championships in Libson, Portugal, winning a gold medal in the 1,500 meters. more than 20 scholarship offers rolled in from U.S. colleges, with Achon choosing George Mason University in Virginia. He went on to set the NCAA Division I record at 800 meters (which still stands) and represented Uganda in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the 2000 Games in Sydney.

“Coming to the United States was like heaven,” said Achon, who will earn his U.S. citizenship later this month.  “Anybody who goes to my village won’t see buildings. They see grass huts.”

While completing a run on a visit to Lira in 2003, Achon came across 11 children lying underneath a bus near the city’s central bus station. He thought the children were dead until one suddenly moved and looked at him, begging for money. Not wanting to leave the orphans behind, Achon brought them to his father’s straw-roofed hut on the edge of town. His father and brother cared for the children with money Achon sent from his job as a pacer for Nike’s Oregon Project.

“That’s when I knew that God was watching over me, that’s why I needed to survive,” Achon said. “That is why I need to take care of other people.”

With the help of his newfound friends in Oregon, that proved to be the start of the Achon Uganda Children’s Fund. Initially established to provide for the needs of those 11 children, the foundation’s scope has expanded to fund the construction of a church and community center along with pit toilets, solar panels and arranged for CARE International to dig the first permanent well. A status update on his Facebook page from July 22, with a picture of a single light bulb, says it all.

This is a photo of a light bulb. Kind of boring, right? Except this light bulb is the first interior lighting, utilizing the first electricity that the village of Awake in northern Uganda has ever seen. And that’s a big deal for us. Because this light bulb is inside the Kristina Health Clinic, illuminating a room where sick people will be treated and healed, powered by our newly installed solar panels. So it might just be the most beautiful photo of a light bulb we’ve ever seen...

AWAKE-NING

The Kristina Health Clinic, which will be dedicated on Friday, is named in memory of Achon’s mother, who was shot by LRA soldiers and slowly bled to death because his father did not have the money to take her to the hospital in Lira.

For Owens, the chance to play a major part in Achon’s fundraising concert is bringing her full circle. This fall, she will enroll at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She chose Fuller specifically because of the work of one professor whose emphasis is working with Ugandan children.

As Owens reflects on her path, she notes that without persevering through her anemia and continuing her running career, her meeting with Julius Achon would never have happened. Her world would have been different, and perhaps the lives of many others she has yet to meet.

“If my struggles had not had such meaning, I don’t think I would have continued running,” she said. “If I hadn’t continued running, I would never have met Julius.”



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