U.S. Fulbright

The Nina Brekelmans Story: Promoting Women’s and Girl’s Empowerment through Running and Cultural Exchange

April 8, 2016
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Fulbright volunteers, camp coaches, and friends of Nina Brekelmans’: (Top row, from left to right) Coach Mohammad Sweity (head coach of the camp), Ibrahim Abu Asbeh (coach), Mary Grace Pellegrini (Nina’s best friend), Hanoia Ali (friend and running partner in Jordan when Nina lived in Amman), Fulbright U.S. Student Emily Gallagher; (Bottom row) Fulbright U.S. Students Rory Sykes, Maddie Ulanow, Brittany Barrineau, and Summer Forester.

On a bright spring day in April 2014, Nina Brekelmans toed the line to compete in the half marathon at the Dead Sea Ultra race in Amman, Jordan. Although Nina had never competed in this distance before, she won. During a post-race interview, Nina described the race as particularly important to her because it was her last race in Jordan before returning to the United States Tragically, this would be the last race Nina would ever run in Jordan; in June 2015, Nina passed away in a house fire in Washington, DC.

Nina was selected for a Fulbright U.S. Student grant in May 2015 and would have begun her research project in Jordan in August of that year. Nina’s passion for running intersected with and informed her scholarship. As a Fulbright U.S. Student, she planned to research how women’s involvement in elite-level distance running shifts cultural norms about women’s roles in society. Nina hoped to use this research in her lifelong endeavor to promote female participation in athletics. To be sure, Nina was well-suited for this project. During her time in Jordan as a Boren Fellow in 2013-2014, she connected with athletes, coaches, and local running organizations, all of whom embraced Nina as one of their own.

Following Nina’s untimely death, the U.S. Department of State and the Binational Fulbright Commission in Jordan (sponsors and administrators of the Fulbright Program in Jordan) decided to create a community engagement award to honor Nina’s legacy and to help her research continue in Jordan. The prize was $1,000 to fund a project that promoted Nina’s vision of female empowerment through running. This year’s Fulbright U.S. Student group in Jordan worked together to create a proposal.

Nina’s friends and family in the United States gave us the idea to do a camp. They had talked about creating one, but they didn’t have any on-the-ground connections in Jordan to make it a reality. Together, we started laying out the groundwork based on their ideas and the possibilities in Amman.

Planning the camp was easy, largely because Nina was so well respected by everyone she met. Every idea we had was met with a quick solution through people who knew Nina and wanted to support her legacy. We needed a location: one of her friends in Jordan had connections to Sports City where we could host the camp for free; we needed a coach: one of Jordan’s premier marathon runners happened to be her trainer and friend; we needed speakers to talk to the girls about healthy living: Nina had worked with countless people in Jordan towards this end. Nina was there in spirit and helping the camp every step of the way.

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Girls on a run up a hill during their morning run.

The Nina Brekelmans Camp for Girls officially launched on February 27, 2016, and continued for five consecutive Saturdays ending on March 26. Each day started with a 2-4 km run with the fifteen girls, ages 8-14, who participated in the camp. Afterwards, a guest speaker addressed the girls on topics ranging from the health and emotional benefits of running to the importance of strength training and proper nutrition. In the afternoons, we focused on team-building exercises, with a focus on positive self-image and empowerment. Through these sessions, we worked to instill a love of running and foster bonds of friendship and a supportive community.

On April 9, the camp comes to a close with a 3 km race for girls ages 8-14. This race is one of the first of its kind in Jordan, specifically focusing on young female runners. The Dead Sea Ultra race was not Nina’s last because through her vision and community support at least 50 young girls will be running in her namesake at the Nina Brekelmans Race for Girls.

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  • Reply Jay Yanovich April 13, 2016 at 5:39 pm

    Running is an individual endeavor. A personal endeavor. Experiences learned in pursuit of that endeavor, when shared, can be a powerful tool mentoring others wishing to expand their horizons. Your mutual respect and love for Nina is clearly demonstrated by establishing the Nina Brekelmans Camp for Girls. Your efforts will ensure her passion and spirit will guide young girls for generations. Congratulations!

  • Reply Bob Thomas April 14, 2016 at 7:33 am

    As my close friend and mentor-Jay- stated running is a personal and individual endeavor BUT when done in a group setting it can increase the power many fold. Each time those young women step up to toe the start line they are stepping up and out of whatever issue may be trying to hold them back and as they look left and right they see others with similar issues and goals. Bottom line is creating the mental attitude “I can do this, I am good enough to step forward.” The key is the camp can not be a one and done but be a constant in these young women’s life. They move from behind the crowd to the front-from bystander to participant to competitor. That’s all anyone can ask.

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