Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Joan of Arc

Over a year ago I met a young Rwandan woman who loves to ride a bike.  Her name is Jeanne d'Arc Girubuntu and she is from a small town in the Eastern Province of Rwanda.  I remember asking her name and someone saying her name is Jeanne d'Arc.  

I asked Jock in my pathetically quizzical lame single language speaking American voice, "Does her name mean Joan of Arc?"  

He rolled his eyes as someone who speaks many languages, French being his best, "Yes, she's Joan of Arc".

"That's AWESOME!"

As a young girl I remember reading the story of Joan of Arc.  I loved Joan of Arc as I'm sure many young girls who read the story did.  Joan of Arc was a symbol of strength and power, of religious conviction, of passionate belief, a belief you would die for.

Jeanne d'Arc, Rwandan female cyclist, exuded no Joan of Arc like fierceness.  She was pleasant, yet shy and her behavior very much in line culturally with how women, especially poor women in Rwanda present themselves.  She would not look me in the eye, her handshake was a limp fish.  She was a strong cyclist, you could tell, however, not so strong she would stand out beyond the borders of Rwanda.  

At 18 she became the Rwandan National Champion beating her competition by almost 10 minutes.  Contextually it was like beating your grandmother in a 100 meter sprint.  We wondered if there was more to her ability.  

In January of this year we sent her to South Africa for a 4 week training camp at the UCI WCC Africa leading up to the Continental Championships in February in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.  We had a slot, we sent her hoping for the best.  Honestly, we were not at all prepared for the woman we met 5 weeks later.

The group from WCC Africa had taken a bus to meet us in Wartburg, the start/finish of the races.  There were 40-50 athletes who had been training in Potchefstroom.  I was back at the Athlete House where Team Rwanda was based when I spoke with Jock.  He was busy sorting out our team and helping the Eritreans and Ethiopians with some logistics.  One of the first things he said to me is, "You're not going to believe Jeanne d'Arc.  She's different.  She's laughing, hanging with the guys."

When she returned to the Athlete House she made a beeline for me, all smiles, a big hug, a handshake and a resounding "HELLO!"  I looked at Jock...what have you done with Jeanne d'Arc, who is this woman? 

She spent the day catching up with the team just being one of the guys.  

Jock said, "I know?!" to me in mutual bewilderment.

The day of the Women's Elite ITT (Individual Time Trial) I was walking around while Joan of Arc (she was now full on Joan of Arc) was warming up.  I ran into Mosanna Debesay, an Eritrean cyclist who had been with Joan of Arc at the training camp all month.  She gave me a big hug and said, "I love Jeanne d'Arc, she is my best friend.  I love her.  She is strong, but she really does not like hills."

Okay....this coming from one of the strongest women cyclists outside of South Africa.  "Who is this Jeanne d'Arc you speak of?"

Jeanne d'Arc, her first time on a TT bike, actually second if you count around the block with Adrien the night before, raced to a 7th place finish at the Championships only 20 seconds from a podium finish and a full minute ahead of Mosanna!  Unfortunately, the race was a bit disorganized and she made a wrong turn right before the finish costing her about 10-15 seconds.  It was an honest mistake of inexperience, but people noticed her performance and she had their attention.

A few days later she followed it up with a 5th place performance in the Women's Road Race only one place out of receiving an Olympic bid!

Ashleigh MOOLMAN-PASIORSARSA303:06:574040
Hadnet KIDANEETHETH22+3:511616
Jeanne D'arc GIRUBUNTURWARWA20+4:381010
Tsega BEYENEETHETH21+4:3888
Yohana DAWITERIERI22+4:3866
Heidi DALTONRSARSA20+4:3933
10 Mossana DEBESAIERIERI22+8:09

We received a visit at the Athlete House the next day by a South African who runs a women's team made up of women from South Africa, Namibia, Europe and the US.  He was interested in Jeanne d'Arc.  

In the end, Ms. Joan of Arc received an invitation to the UCI WCC Switzerland and will leave the middle of April for 3 months.  

I think the change in her was due to several things.  First, she stopped racing/riding to the lowest common denominator.  The girls she raced against in Rwanda are on a completely different level.  They're recreational cyclists.  Secondly, she raced with peers, people at her level or higher.  People who had raced internationally.  Finally, and most importantly, she found a place where she could speak up and be heard.  She gained respect through the bicycle.  It was perfectly okay to stand out, to be different and to be strong.  

Today she rides with the boys of Team Rwanda as she awaits her move to Switzerland.  She can hold her own.  The boys have taken her under their wings.  They are her coaches, trainers and biggest supporters.  Joan of Arc has a back up force of 20 brothers who will not let anyone come between her and her dreams of racing professionally.  Culturally, she is at an age where she would be looking at marriage and family.  Good luck trying to even have a "boyfriend" with these guys watching out for her.  They all know she is the Adrien Niyonshuti of cycling for women in Rwanda.  She is Rwandan women's opportunity.  She will be the one to break down barriers for African women cyclists.  

I couldn't think of a more fitting name.

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