National champion Kimeli has big plans for career on, off track

Elite student-athlete wants to help others as nurse while chasing Olympic dreams
Published: April 27, 2021
Updated: April 29, 2021
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Joyce Kimeli likes the pain.

She admits it freely. The physical pain she experiences pushing herself past the limits once thought insurmountable is what feeds her fire.

The native Kenyan combined that strong mental toughness with elite athletic ability she has honed through years of training and raced to the 5000M national title at the NCAA Indoor Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on March 13. Kimeli became Auburn’s first track and field NCAA champion since 2010—and first ever in a distance event—despite a roller-coaster few months leading up to nationals.

Her father and mentor, Joseph Kimeli, passed away in December, and she made the 8,000-mile trek from the Plains back home to be with her family during the difficult time. Kimeli did not train from Dec. 22 to Jan. 17, returning to Auburn with a heavy heart and just a month to prepare for the indoor season’s crescendo.

Amazingly, with just a month of regimented training with Auburn distance coach David Barnett, Kimeli pulled off a rare double at the SEC Indoor Championships in late February. She won the 3000M and 5000M conference titles, then unexpectedly crossed the finish line first in the 5000M at the NCAAs two weeks later to forever etch her name in Auburn’s history books.

“Winning the national championship, it was really, really great,” said Kimeli, who also placed third in the 3000M at the NCAAs. “I was so happy, and I wished my dad could be there to hear that I won. It means a lot because I was not expecting to win.”

Kimeli pointed skyward in tribute to her father as she crossed the finish line and became an NCAA champion, just as a wave of feelings rushed over her.

“After the race, my emotions were all over, especially when you win and you were not expecting to do so,” said Kimeli, who began competing at age 13 as a high school freshman in Kenya. “I did not know how my running would feel when I woke up that day, but it took the hand of God for me to win the race and I’m so excited. I’m so proud of my school for the support, for my teammates and for my coach.”

Her first thoughts were of her late father, who would be the first family member she spoke to after a race.

“I would always let my dad know when I was traveling to a race, and he would give me some input and give me hope and would say, ‘My daughter, I know you can do it,’” said Kimeli, who was named Auburn’s female athlete of the year by the Athletic Department. “That was good for me because it would drive away the anxiety in me. So, most of the races I’ve been running since losing my dad, it would be emotional because he was the first person to call me and ask, ‘How was the race? How did it go?’

“But I feel good because I still have my mom [Salina Jepkosgei Kimeli], and I still have my siblings. My eldest brother, Mathew Kimeli, is a professional athlete who encourages me. He has taken the role of my dad, and the things he says are the same as what my dad would always say.”

She put her emotional pain aside long enough to focus on the physical pain of competing at the highest level, and she became a champion.

“I embrace the pain,” said Kimeli, who has two years of eligibility left at Auburn. “Whenever I feel the pain, I know I’ve done the work. If there is no pain, I can guarantee to myself that wasn’t good work. It also keeps me from not loosening up very easily.”

Pressure, pain as motivation

Success and pressure go hand in hand in sports, and Kimeli embraces that dynamic as a national champion going forward.

“It feels good, and it keeps the pressure on you that you need to do the work,” Kimeli said. “It gives you motivation and drives you to do better when all the nation is looking at you and knows you are a champion. They expect the best, so I think it’s good.

“You need to be challenged, and whenever I am challenged, that feels better to me because I know tomorrow I can do better than today. That’s one way for me to stay motivated, keep my focus for the upcoming races and learning from mistakes.”

Kimeli said Auburn’s beloved head track and field coach, Ralph Spry, also motivated her by giving her a flattering nickname when she arrived on the Plains.

“He has called me ‘my champ’ since my freshman year,” Kimeli said of Spry. “It would always stick in my mind, and I would say, ‘When am I going to prove this, to be a champion?’ It’s all about believing and accepting that you’re a champion.”

The camaraderie Kimeli has with her teammates and coaching staff also has been a source of strength and motivation for her during recent months.

“Sometimes, I would feel down or depressed and my teammates would praise me, and I would feel good,” Kimeli said. “Most people knew what I was going through, and they kept supporting me with words of encouragement and pieces of advice. So, I would like to thank everybody who was around me for giving me that comfort.

“It’s really hard to be racing with stress or a divided mind, but I felt really good because of everyone and having a good school that supports you. They don’t want to see you going through things alone, and I’m really thankful for them.”

All the while, she has thought about her father watching over her.

“Sometimes, I feel emotional and feel so much stress, but I always tell myself, ‘He’s watching me, he’s watching me,’” she said. “Every time he talked to me, he would talk about success. He would never talk about anything negative, which is real good because, when you surround yourself with people who are staying positive, you will be having a positive mentality and there is nothing negative that will come into your mind.”

Kimeli has continued to excel as her sport transitioned to the outdoors this spring, setting a school record and clocking the nation’s fastest time, 9:37.97, in the 3000M steeplechase on April 16. She will compete at the SEC Outdoor Championships in College Station, Texas, May 13-15, the NCAA East Prelims in Jacksonville, Florida, May 27-29, and the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon, June 9-12, all the while taking a pair of classes during summer semester.

Prototypical student-athlete

Kimeli’s work ethic also translates into the classroom, where she is a top-flight student with plans of attending nursing school. The exercise science major attacks her studies in the College of Education the same way she does a race—with focus and determination.

“Sometimes, it is hard to balance, but when you know what you’re supposed to do and where, it’s not hard,” said Kimeli, who will finish her undergraduate degree in December. “It’s all about punctuality and dependability. When it’s track, just put all your mind on the track, and when you’re in class, be at the class so that you won’t be bringing some things from track to class.

“Having the mindset and having priorities about what should come first, I think that will help to know exactly what to do at what time. It’s all about you being responsible.”

Juliana Otoni Parma, a graduate teaching assistant in the School of Kinesiology who has taught Kimeli, has been impressed by her dedication to academics.

“Joyce is a one-of-a-kind student,” said Parma, who recently was selected as a university-wide grad student winner in the Oral Presentation category during Research Week. “In my course, she was very interested not only in getting excellent grades, but was also very concerned about actually learning the content of the class. When I learned she was a student-athlete, I was impressed about how she could succeed so well in both areas.

“She is passionate about her education, and this is what we need from a nurse—to be passionate and to have the technical and scientific knowledge she is supposed to have. I am sure Joyce will have both because she works so hard for it. On top of everything, she is a kind and upfront person, which, needless to say, are qualities that can only be beneficial to any career she chooses.”

Barnett views Kimeli as the embodiment of a student-athlete.

“Honestly, she’s really the epitome of it,” he said. “I don’t have to be on her about studying or running. Whatever she’s doing at the moment is what’s most important to her, so when we’re on the road traveling, she’s always studying and when we’re back home, she’s training hard and getting her sleep.

“She’s equally as motivated for her career as she is for running, and it’s rare to find that balance. She has goals for both, and I think that’s what’s really cool about it. We’re in season year-round, and so you don’t really get a chance to just focus on academics, so you really have to make academics a priority, and she does a great job of doing that.”

Tough as tough can be

Kimeli’s focus and fire come from within, rooted firmly in a mantra her father instilled from an early age.

“My dad would always say, ‘Joyce, are you not tough?’” she said. “Sometimes my coaches might say words I remember, too, and having those in my mind is a driving force toward my success, because I know the path to success is not an easy road. There will be sweat, there will be tears and sometimes you’ll feel like you don’t want to get out of bed to train.

“Success is built upon a lot of hard work. There are multiple times of failure, and it can only be achieved if you prepare well ahead and commit yourself to work hard after failing.”

That toughness helped Kimeli evolve after arriving at Auburn as an unsure freshman. She finished second-to-last in the conference that year but has improved consistently ever since, evolving into the most decorated athlete on campus.

“She’s really come a long way since her freshman year,” said Barnett, who bonded even more closely with Kimeli after also losing his father in 2020. “A lot of people see a Kenyan running fast and are like, ‘Oh, OK, of course she’s fast, she’s Kenyan.’ It wasn’t an instant road to success for her, so it’s been pretty cool to see.

“We joke that people think it’s easy for Joyce and make those excuses for themselves by saying it’s easy for her. But even when she was running in the 17 minutes [for 5k] as a freshman, we both thought she could be good. Then, the next year when she was in the 16s, we believed it, and now she’s in the mid-15s and we still believe it. It’s a joke that it takes years to become an overnight success, and it’s very true.”

Future is bright

That progress could lead to Kimeli realizing her Olympic dreams, either this summer in Tokyo or in three years in Paris. No matter what happens, she is determined to achieve great things both as a runner and a nurse.

“If I make it to the Olympics, that’s fine, but if I don’t, it’s not the end to everything,” Kimeli said. “If my body stays healthy, it wouldn’t be a surprise for me making the Olympics. As we progress ahead, I know God is working on something good. So, I’m looking forward to this year and am positive.”

Off the track, Kimeli wants to dedicate her life to helping people who are in pain, using expertise she will gain studying to become a nurse to make others’ lives better.

“My dad would always say, ‘I want you to be a doctor,’ and I said, ‘No, I want to be a nurse,’ and he accepted that,” Kimeli said. “I want to help people who need my help, and I have a passion toward nursing. I want to use my talent while I’m still alive and while I’m still strong to serve people.

“I do not care where I work, so long as I do what I like, I fulfill my dream and achieve my goal. I want to be a nurse because I want to see other young women follow in my footsteps to become nurses. When I get old, I don’t want to have regrets.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification, life-changing outreach with Carnegie’s Community Engagement designation and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn’s commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact.