Former Wildcat track star now runs to save lives

Gilbert Tuhabonye

Running saved his life. Now he is saving the lives of others through his passion to run. Former ACU track star and Olympian Gilbert Tuhabonye (’01) is co-founder of the Gazelle Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life for people in Burundi by providing access to clean water.

While Tuhabonye’s contribution to the people of Burundi is inspiring in itself, it is his life story that provides a poignant backdrop for the cause he supports today.

An early love for running

Born in 1974 in the southern county of Songa in Burundi, a small mountainous country in east central Africa, Tuhabonye grew up with his three siblings and parents who farmed and were part of the Tutsi tribe.

Tuhabonye grew up loving to run. He ran to the valley's edge to get water for his family. He ran to school, five miles away. He loved to race his friends, and his favorite pastime was chasing his family's cows.

In the sixth grade Tuhabonye was baptized as a Catholic and in the next year, moved 150 miles away to board at a Protestant school in Kibimba where he began to run competitively.

Running barefoot, he won an 8K race while only a freshman. As a sophomore, he met a coach who encouraged him to work hard and try for the Olympics. Gilbert became a national champion in the 400 and 800 meters as an 11th grader. As a senior, Gilbert was already an extraordinary runner whose goal was to get a scholarship to an American school, get an education and return home to Burundi.

Running for his life

Those plans took a twist on Oct. 21, 1993. The centuries-old war between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes erupted in horrific reality one afternoon as Tuhabonye and his classmates were in school. The Hutu classmates at the Kibimba school, their parents, some teachers and other Hutu tribesmen, forced more than a hundred Tutsi children and teachers into a room where they beat and burned them to death.

After nine hours of being buried by the corpses of his beloved friends, and himself on fire, Tuhabonye used the charred bone of one of his classmates to break through a window. He jumped free of the burning building and ran into the night, on charred feet, surviving one of the most horrible massacres in the long Tutsi-Hutu war. He ran from that horror into a new life.

The road to forgiveness

After his traumatic past, Tuhabonye had two choices: hold on to the anger and hurt caused by the Burundi genocide or find strength to forgive those who caused much pain and loss. Tuhabonye tells a candid first hand account of his path to forgiveness in a TED talk in Austin.  

He shares, "Forgiveness has allowed me to move forward. Forgiveness has allowed me to find joy. It was very hard; I had to find running. Running is my therapy. It is my freedom. It grounds me and it makes me happy. It is the vehicle for all other blessings that have come my way."

Tuhabonye shares his remarkable story in greater detail through his book: This Voice in My Heart: A Genocide Survivor's Story of Escape, Faith, and Forgiveness.

Running to bring joy

Now, 19 years later and more than 8,000 miles from Burundi, Gilbert Tuhabonye is a celebrity in the world of running. Despite being covered with scar tissue from his extensive burns, he was a national champion runner while at Abilene Christian University. He is now, by all accounts, the most popular running coach in Austin, Texas, where he lives with his wife, Triphine, and two daughters, Emma and Grace.

Tuhabonye spreads his joy and passion for running as the owner and founder of Gilbert's Gazelles, one of Austin's largest training groups for people looking to learn the basics of running, train for the Boston Marathon, and everything in between. He is also the head cross country and track coach at St. Andrews High School, having led them to four consecutive state championships (2008-2011).

In 2006, along with a few other running friends, Gilbert co-founded the Gazelle Foundation whose mission is to build water projects in Burundi. Fittingly, the Foundation's largest annual fundraiser is the Run for the Water 10-Miler, 5K & Kids K event, which takes place each fall in downtown Austin.  

Tuhabonye says of the Gazelle Foundation, "The main focus of the foundation is to provide clean water to people. We go to places where we know people need us."

Because of the foundation's efforts through fundraising events like Run for the Water, 15,500 people now have access to clean water as of this September 2012.  

Cherishing the present and future

From his humble childhood in the mountains, to the horrific Burundi genocide, to his national track championships, to his life-changing foundation, Gilbert Tuhabonye has led a life filled with both pain and joy.

"My life in Africa was both beautiful and tragic," says Tuhabonye. "You can summarize my life in three cycles. I started running as a carefree child in the mountains of Africa in Burundi. Then I ran for my life. Now, I run with joy."

Tuhabonye has allowed his past to inspire his vision for helping others. Through his ability to grant forgiveness, Tuhabonye is able to use his joy for running as a vessel through which God's work can be done. 

He says, "I cherish and live for the moment I have today and I look for what tomorrow will bring." 

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