Marysville teen to race as Olympian for the Marshall Islands

MARYSVILLE — Haley Nemra figures it will all sink in sometime on Aug. 6.

At some point that day, sitting in an airplane somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, Nemra fears the enormity of the situation will catch up to her.

That’s the day when, just two months clear of her high school graduation, Nemra will be on her way to China for the 2008 Olympics.

That’s when Nemra, a fifth-place finisher at the 2008 Class 4A state track and field championships, will be about a week away from lining up against some of the world’s best athletes. And when the gun goes off in the preliminaries of the women’s 800-meter run, Nemra will run to make proud a country she has never lived in or even visited. Running to honor relatives she barely knows, half a world away.

Nemra, whose father, Korap, was born in the Marshall Islands, became a Marshallese citizen last year. Next month, the 2008 graduate of Marysville-Pilchuck High School will be one of five athletes representing the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a country located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia that gained independence in 1986, in the country’s first Olympics.

“I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” said Nemra, 18. “I feel like it’s going to hit me when I get on that plane to China. It’ll be like, ‘Wow, I’m going to the Olympics.’”

How’d she do that?

If you think this all sounds a little crazy, that a runner with little more than high school experience is suddenly making the jump to track and field’s biggest stage, well, Nemra agrees.

She first represented the Marshall Islands two years ago at the South Pacific Games in Samoa. She won bronze medals in the 800 and 1,500, prompting Marshall Islands officials to encourage her to consider running for the Marshall Islands again. At the time, the country had only recently gained approval from the International Olympic Committee, and any thoughts of running in the Olympics seemed like a faraway dream for Nemra.

She didn’t know for sure that she was running in the Olympics until late June.

Because Nemra’s personal best in the 800 is 2:13.83 — well short of the A and B Olympic standards — the Marshall Islands had to submit a request to the International Association of Athletics Federations.

“They mentioned the Olympics, but I never really thought it was going to happen,” said Nemra, who will run track and cross country at the University of San Francisco. “Then they told me that it went through that the Marshall Islands was going to have a team, and everyone was really excited, and now they’re letting me be one of them. It’s crazy.”

While not the norm, it’s not unheard of for U.S. athletes to compete for foreign countries in the Olympics. When Greece hosted the 2004 Olympics, the country fielded a baseball team made up primarily of American players. WNBA all-star Becky Hammond, who is American but also holds a Russian passport, caused controversy by deciding to play for Russia in this year’s Games. According to a Los Angeles Times article, five of the nine members of Mexico’s boxing team are American.

For countries with less established athletic programs such as the Marshall Islands, seeking foreign help is a more common practice. Sprinter Roman Cress is Marshallese by birth, but was raised in Minnesota. Swimmer Jared Heine was born in Guam, then moved to Hawaii before attending Florida State University. Another Marshall Islands swimmer, Julianne Kirchner, was born in Alabama, but moved to the Marshall Islands at a young age. She recently gained citizenship in order to represent the Marshall Islands.

Even a short conversation with Nemra is enough to know that she won’t take this opportunity for granted. Every time her upcoming trip to Beijing comes up, Nemra’s brown eyes light up and a big smile is usually followed by laughter. She keeps repeating words “crazy,” “exciting” and “amazing.” Nemra comes across more like a teenage girl than an Olympian, because she knows a lot more about being the former than the latter.

Nemra figures that awe will carry over right up to the start of her preliminary race on Aug. 15.

“I’m going to look beside me and be like, ‘Wow, this is crazy,’” she said, again laughing at the thought. “I really don’t know what I’ll be thinking. I’m just going to run my hardest and hopefully the Marshall Islands will be happy.”

Excitement in islands

No Marshallese native will be more proud when Nemra runs than her father.

It’s been nearly 40 years since Korap Nemra left the Marshall Islands, then a U.S. territory. His mother passed away when he was 14, so when a Peace Corps volunteer was returning to Pennsylvania the following year, she took Korap with her. He eventually ended up in Hawaii, where he met Haley’s mother, Mary. The couple eventually moved to Washington state, where Mary was from, to raise their three children.

Korap has made a couple of short visits to his home country, but hasn’t lived there since leaving as a teenager. As excitement builds in the Marshall Islands with the Olympics approaching, he misses home more than ever.

“Right now, I really want to go back,” he said, noting that people in the Marshall Islands are excited for his daughter. “She’s never been there, so it’s neat that people over there are getting behind her.”

Korap Nemra, who hopes to someday retire in his native country, said his daughter is running for a lot more than herself and her family.

“This is the first year Marshall Islands are going to go to the Olympics, and she’s going to be one of the first girls from the Marshall Islands to go,” he said. “I told her, ‘They’re really going to respect you on the islands for that.’”

Seeing his family name represented in the Olympics is sure to be a proud moment for Korap Nemra.

“That’s what really makes me feel good about what she’s doing,” he said. “I hope my mom sees all of this, and I know she will. She was really into kids, and I know she’d be proud of Haley for this.”

Nemra hopes she can someday get to the Marshall Islands and find a positive use for whatever notoriety the Olympics give her.

“I’m really proud to represent them,” she said. “I know how much it means to my family and especially my dad, but also, I just really want to help start something there. I certainly wasn’t thinking I was going to the Olympics right after high school, but by just showing that you can get here, I hope people on the Marshall Islands realize they be that girl. I hope they can see that opportunity.”

As for the Olympics themselves, Nemra hopes to make the most of all of her opportunities. During the opening ceremonies on Aug. 8, she’ll walk next to the Marshall Islands flag wearing traditional Marshallese attire.

After that, she’ll have a week to adjust to life in the Olympic Village before running in the toughest race of her life. Up to this point, the fastest 800 field Nemra has ever been a part of was in the 2005 state finals when she ran against Becca Noble, who went on to win a NCAA title for Oregon in the 800, and Brie Felnagle, who won a National Championship in the 1,500 for North Carolina.

Nemra knows she’s in a little over her head, but hopes to at least run a personal best and make the Marshall Islands proud.

“I have no idea what I’ll be able to do,” she said. “I’m capable of a fast 400, so I’m hoping I can keep going, because I know that’s what the rest of them will be doing.”

To help prepare for the pace she might see, Nemra has been training by having a pair of Marysville-Pilchuck teammates take turns running 400 meters as fast as possible while she tries to run all 800.

Nemra will return from China just two days before her college classes start. Dealing with that has so far been more difficult than the thought of running in the Olympics.

“That’s the big stress,” she said. “That’s why I have so much stuff on my mind. I’m really trying to deal with it slowly, but I do have my days where I get stressed out.”

Eyes on the runner

Whatever happens in Beijing, plenty of friends and family in two countries will be watching. Nemra’s mom, Mary, figures she’ll be hosting parties for family at odd hours of the night to see Haley in the opening ceremonies and when she competes. Mary wishes she and Haley’s older siblings Adam and Meagan could all make the trip to China, but because everything was finalized so late, they’ll instead be rooting from home.

Mary admits she is nervous having her daughter so far away without her, but is also thrilled about the opportunity, even if it means a hectic summer with college just around the corner.

“Just going on to college and leaving home is a lot of pressure, and now this on top of all of that?” Mary said. “But it’s the chance of a lifetime, and she’s going to see a lot of exciting things. We’re all so excited for her.”

Also excited will be Marysville-Pilchuck runners and coaches. Tomahawks coach Randy Davis, who will be cheering on a former athlete for a second straight Olympics — Class of 1995 M-P grad Jarred Rome threw the discus in the 2004 Olympics — has ordered a bunch of Marshall Islands T-shirts for his athletes.

“This is a pretty unique situation, but I think she’ll handle it well,” Davis said. “She’s so well grounded, and her mother has done such a wonderful job keeping her grounded and focused. I think Haley will do just fine with it. I think she understands the enormity of it and what a big opportunity it is. We’re just real proud of her. It’s a neat thing for her to be a part of.”

With fans cheering her on from Marysville to the Marshall Islands, Nemra knows next month will be unlike anything she has ever experienced.

“It really has been crazy just thinking that I’m actually going to the Olympics and realizing that I just graduated from Marysville-Pilchuck,” she said. “That I’m going from a state meet to running against the best of the best.”

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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