FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Getting from the Navajo Reservation to Beijing can be a tough haul, even if you are used to traveling long distances.
Two Navajo runners have their eyes and hearts set on China, and the newly formed nonprofit organization Nideiltihi Navajo Elite Runners will do everything it can to help them get there for the Summer Olympics in 2008.
NNER provides runners with basic financial aid for such necessities as travel, lodging and equipment. It also helps with living expenses and assists with coaching services; but most importantly, said board member Thomas Hatathli, the organization offers a spirit, a vision and a sense of shared goals and common values.
Hatathli explained how the organization evolved.
''We were invited to consult at the Center for High Altitude Training at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff,'' he recalled. ''We started talking about how talented our Navajo runners are and how much of that talent is lost. Navajo runners have less support than the runners from some poor, foreign countries.
''So we decided to start our own organization, not only to provide financial support but to create a family, a spirit and a sense of togetherness for our runners.
''It was a slow start for us until Karletta Chief became involved. She put the corporation together and filed the paperwork with the Arizona Corporation Commission and the Internal Revenue Service,'' he said.
Chief is an NNER board member and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona, where she is studying hydrology. She explained that the organization was founded to support aspiring Olympians.
''In the past it has been a real challenge for Native American elite runners to continue as athletes after high school.''
The barriers are the obvious financial ones, but there are also cultural conflicts that runners must resolve.
Native people on the reservation have a ''strong commitment to home and community,'' Chief said. ''Those obligations may hinder their commitment to being full-time runners. There is also the question of 'Should I do this?' Competitive running puts people in the public eye, and that may not be in keeping with the traditions grandma and grandpa taught you. To be in the individual, competitive area means you have to put yourself out there and you may seem to be a prideful, selfish person.''
Two runners who are negotiating those challenges with the help of NNER are Alvina Begay, who is originally from Ganado, and Brandon Leslie, originally from Church Rock, N.M. Both are training at the Center for High Altitude Training.
Hatathli said that Leslie ran the 2006 Chicago Marathon in 2:15.20, thus earning plane fare to New York where he will run in the New York City Marathon in November 2007. The Olympic trials for Beijing 2008 will be held there at the same time.
Begay will run the Boston Marathon in April 2008 and try out for the Olympics there.
In order to qualify, Leslie and Begay will have to be one of the top three runners. They will try out for the marathon and the 10,000-meter races.
If they can qualify, Leslie and Begay will be the first Navajo Olympic runners, and they will join a distinguished list of American Indian world-renowned athletes that includes Louis Tewanima, Hopi, who won the silver medal in the 10,000-meter race in the 1912 Olympics and finished ninth in the 1908 Olympic Marathon; Jim Thorpe, Sac and Fox, winner of the gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon races in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm; Tom Longboat, Onondaga, winner of the 1907 Boston Marathon and runner in the 1908 Olympic marathon; Ellison Brown, Narragansett, two-time winner of the Boston Marathon and participant in the 1936 Olympics; and Billy Mills, Oglala Lakota, 1964 winner of Olympic gold in the 10,000 meter in Tokyo.
NNER is completely run by volunteers who have their own full-time jobs, said Chief. ''It's a lot of work to fund-raise. We're a nonprofit and everything we have was donated out of the kindness of someone's heart.''
The board hopes to be able to expand the organization's services to include programs for youth as well as post-sport career planning and mentoring. In all, it will be ''a new paradigm for support of professional elite Navajo athletes.'' Right now, however, the most urgent need is for financial support.
For more information, visit www.navajoeliterunners.org/main.htm or e-mail board member Melody Varner at Melody.Varner@navajoeliterunners.org.