BY Mary Grace Pellegrini, Foundation President, and Sophie Zinser, Jordan Director of Operations
Under sunny skies and with endless high-fives, a large crew of coaches and volunteers welcomed 80 participants to the fourth annual Nina Brekelmans Race for Girls at Al Hussein Public Parks. As in past years, the race invited runners from across Jordan to participate in a day of racing and sportsmanship in this girls-focused event. Girls ages 8 to 14 competed in two divisions, with trophies awarded to the top three finishers in each category in addition to recognition for top finishers who competed in both the race and camp.
The day started early for organizers and volunteers who arrived at the park before 7am to begin setup, clear the course, and facilitate logistics for equipment and supplies. Volunteers arrived around 8:30 and enjoyed some pastries while going over assignments prior to the arrival of our competitors. We’re grateful to our contingent of volunteers from the Amman running community, Boren, and Fulbright for their enthusiastic participation.
Promptly at 9 our sunny yellow busses arrived with runners for the race. In addition to runners from our nonprofit partners Reclaim Childhood and Sawiyan, girls joined from Al Hoffaz International Academy, the Amman Baccalaureate School, and other local connections. After the girls registered, each was given a race T-shirt and received assistance pinning on their race bibs. Many girls then chose to join in group warmups and games, chat with friends in the shade, or get pumped by singing some of their favorite K Pop songs. At 10, Head Coach Rawda called the girls together with some final finish line instructions. She gave the girls a small pep talk reminding them of the importance of chasing their goals. Through any combination of running and walking, she motivated them to overcome all obstacles and finish the course.
While younger runners (ages 8 to 10) competed in a 1K route similar to last year’s course, older runners (ages 11 to 14) tested themselves in a new 2K course. Despite best laid plans, park construction near the finish line led to some quick rerouting on the part of organizers and volunteers. Instead, the runners started and finished in the same area, which created a fun opportunity for the younger and older girls to cheer for each other in alternating turns. The finish line rang with cheers of “Yalla Nina, yalla banat” or “Let’s go Nina, let’s go girls” as runners streamed through the finish line to receive medals awarded by Nina’s parents, Gail and Nico Brekelmans.
In the younger category, the top prizes were claimed by Nishwan Abkar (first), Hana Abdulrazeq (second), and Malak Mohammad Mahmoud (third) who took home trophies for the top three spots. In the older division, first through third place trophies were awarded to Abeer Kaafy (first), Fatimah Kaafy (second), and Ayat Aawamer (third).
Notably, Abeer Kaafy—now 14 years old—competed in the first year of the Nina Brekelmans race and joined for the camp’s second and fourth years. It was fun to have her as a return camper this year and likewise to see her hard work pay off in a victory in her final year of eligibility for prizes.
All racers ran their hearts out and were cheered along by volunteers, coaches, parents, friends, and community supporters. After the running events, girls enjoyed water and snacks in the shade before convening in the park amphitheater for awards. To help cool off in the heat, girls also had the option to enjoy a light water mist from volunteers.
At the ceremony, Coach Rawda kicked off events by asking the girls to share stories of their accomplishments at the camp and race. Many of the girls shared how at the start of the program they were not confident that they would be able to run the full length of the race, but by the end, they were surprised by what they could accomplish. One girl even began by saying: “When I first started camp, the hardest part of the running was….the running.” The girls laughed and clapped as each story was told, reflecting the collective spirit instilled in all campers throughout the five-week period.
Gail and Nico followed with words of amazement for the girls’ accomplishments and encouragement to keep training and racing. Sophie Zinser, the camp’s Director of Operations, then spoke to congratulate runners, thank our partners, volunteers, coaches, and the work of Mary Grace Pellegrini, the President of the Nina Brekelmans Foundation, and the rest of the board working hard from behind the scenes in the states. Following a presentation of trophies to top finishers, the Nina Brekelmans Memorial Foundation also took time to thank our Head Coaches Rawda and Ru’a, Sophie, Reclaim Childhood partners and assistant coaches Hanan Kadra and Umena Haroub, and institutional partner Sawiyan. The team also thanked volunteers from the camp and race with jackets, hats, and t-shirts to show appreciation for everyone’s time and efforts.
The 2019 Nina Brekelmans Race for Girls had a true community spirit to it. It has been a joy to see the runners develop in their passions and confidence through sports over the past weeks, and we look forward to continuing to expand this opportunity for more girls in the coming years. As a final thought, one of the truly beautiful things about the program is the way that Head Coaches Rawda and Ru’a use Nina’s story and positive attitude as a role model for the girls. As a result, Nina’s parents Gail and Nico are highly regarded by many of the girls from the camp. In a final anecdote, one week after the race as Gail and Nico were walking around Jebal Amman, they were approached by a young girl. “Nina Camp?” the girl asked them excitedly. Both Gail and Nico were surprised and flattered that they had been recognized for the camp’s efforts, and were excited by how the camp’s presence is beginning to grow in Amman’s youth community. It’s been a lovely year full of fun, friendship, and running. Thank you for your support, and we look forward to sharing our fifth year of the camp and race with you in 2020.