Friends Honor the Memory of Runner, Advocate Who Died at 25
By Nelson Rice
Published by RunnersWorld.com on July 2, 2015
Just weeks after graduating from Georgetown University with a master’s degree in Arab Studies, Nina Brekelmans, 25, died on June 3 in a fire at the row home she was renting in the Dupont Circle area of Washington D.C.
According to a statement released by Georgetown University, the fire was triggered by an electrical malfunction. Since then, tributes from across the world have poured in for the quiet young woman who loved running and dedicated her time to helping others.
Brekelmans discovered running during her sophomore year at Dartmouth College while on semester break in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Mary Grace Pellegrini, a friend from high school who ran track at the University of Michigan, convinced Brekelmans to tag along for a morning training session.
Pellegrini said she was expecting a recovery day. That quickly changed when Brekelmans pushed the pace—on her first run.
“I told Nina she was in great condition and that she was a natural runner,” Pellegrini told Runner’s World Newswire.
Pellegrini gave Brekelmans a training schedule and a pair of Mizunoracing flats. When Brekelmans went back to Hanover, New Hampshire, she entered the Dartmouth Invitational indoor track meet and ran 10:20 in the 3K. Coaches noticed and gave her a spot on the team.
“For all distance runners, you need to have a certain amount of motivation,” Barry Harwick, Dartmouth’s director of track and field and cross country, said. “And Nina had plenty.”
Once she graduated from Dartmouth in 2012 with a degree in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Brekelmans began pursuing her master’s at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. At the same time she sought out Jerry Alexander, the coach of the Georgetown Running Club, and asked how she could join the elite team.
Brekelmans, who had personal records of 5:12 in the mile and 9:56 in the 3K, had far less experience than most of the team members. She didn’t care and pushed herself to hang with some of squad’s best runners.
“She wasn’t satisfied with just making the team,” Alexander said. “She wanted to be one of top women, and she was going to do whatever it took to get there.”
In 2013, Brekelmans was selected for a Boren Fellowship to study in Cairo. Shortly after arriving, she was forced to evacuate to Amman, Jordan, because of unrest in the region.
The change in location didn’t deter Brekelmans. She woke up at 4:30 a.m. every morning to run and avoid the stifling heat. Brekelmans volunteered and helped create a junior runners program for Run Jordan, a non-governmental organization that promotes long distance running in the country. After spending time there, she entered the 2014 Dead Ultra Marathon and ran the half marathon race—her first attempt at the distance—and won in 1:23:56.
“That was way faster than we thought Nina was capable of doing even if she trained in ideal circumstances,” Alexander said. “It was by far the best race of her life.”
After Brekelmans returned to Georgetown, she continued her outreach efforts. For her “Refugees in the Arab World” class, she translated refugee testimonies so they could secure asylum in the U.S. She was a mentor for Girls on the Run—a nonprofit after-school program that encourages preteen girls to develop self-esteem and healthy lifestyles through running.
Although a series of injuries prevented her from running competitively earlier this year, she went to several races in the spring to cheer on her Georgetown Running Club teammates, including Pellegrini, who moved to Washington D.C. for work.
Pellegrini last saw Brekelmans at her graduation in May. On June 3, Pelligrini got a voicemail from Alexander asking her to call him back. He then told her the news of Brekelmans' sudden death.
More than 20 members from the running club attended Brekelmans’ memorial service at Georgetown’s Dahlgren Chapel. During the luncheon after the service, Pellegrini and Alexander both spoke.
“Nina was so humble that I wanted to make sure everyone was aware of her accomplishments, not only as student, but as a runner as well,” Alexander said.
Brekelmans hoped to unite her interest in the Arab world and love of running through a Fulbright grant she was awarded this spring. She planned to travel to Jordan again to study distance running as a tool for women’s rights.
To uphold that mission, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown intends to establish the Nina Brekelmans Scholarship Fund to promote female empowerment in the Middle East.
Her running community is remembering in its own way. On June 11, Run Jordan held a race in Brekelmans’ honor. The Georgetown Running Club had a moment of silence for her before its Father’s Day 8K, but the club wants to commemorate her life and impact in a more lasting fashion.
The team plans to put a patch with Brekelmans’ name on their warmup jackets—in English and Arabic.
“She’ll be with us every step of the way,” Alexander said.