NCAA Top Runner
Gebrehiwot finds a winning footing on the track and in life
As a child, Yorkabel Gebrehiwot didn’t imagine higher education. Become a top runner at an NCAA Division II school—unlikely. “I remember playing outside, going to school, normal childhood things…but also the struggle of being in a Third World country,” she says of her early years in Eritrea and later, after her family relocated due to civil unrest, Kenya.
She was 10 when her family settled in Fresno. Soon after, a middle school PE teacher invited her to join the cross country team.
“I started and quit,” she admits, noting she was still finding her footing in her new country. “But I joined again in high school. A big part of it was thinking that if I was back there, I wouldn’t have had the chances I do now.”
By her senior year, she led Hoover High’s women’s cross country team. That’s when she met Ray Winter (BA ’98), FPU’s head cross country and track coach.
Though Gebrehiwot didn’t run the times needed to be recruited, Winter saw something. “She was interested in running, and I saw enough of her to know she was very undeveloped in terms of her training and her experience,” he says.
What’s more, Gebrehiwot hoped to attend FPU for its Christ-centered curriculum. When she began working out with the cross country team, Winter says, her talent emerged.
“I knew I had to do whatever it takes,” she recalls. “I worked hard over the summer and realized I can do this. I belong here. I can go farther; I can get faster.”
As a freshman, Gebrehiwot was among the top Sunbird runners and scored PacWest Freshman of the Year.
Then came the obstacles. As the pandemic sidelined in-person practices and competition, Gebrehiwot struggled with pain, starting in the knees and moving into her hips and shins.
“That was a dark, hard time,” she adds. “I asked myself questions like, ‘Why am I putting myself through the pain if we’re not even going to race?’”
Her injuries persisted through rehab and physical therapy. When competition resumed for the 2021 track season, Gebrehiwot says, “I was not at my fittest, physically or mentally.”
By the end of the 2022 track season, she’d had enough. “She went from great hopes and promise to really wrestling with the social and emotional challenges of being sidelined by injury and self-doubt,” says Winter. “The last track race of her season, she actually stepped off the track and didn’t finish.”
But the spark Winter had seen still burned, and with the commitment of strength and conditioning coach Whitney Levya-Camberos and assistant director of sports medicine James Guzman, Gebrehiwot began her comeback. She credits Guzman, especially. “He helped me with my physical rehab, but also told me my mental health mattered and not to ignore it.”
“They really turned the tide,” Winter says, “and it culminated in healing and fitness. She showed up at training camp amazingly fit and so excited to be able to run.”
A surprise win at the team’s first meet set the tone for the season. She placed ninth at the PacWest Cross Country Championships and became the highest finisher in FPU history at the NCAA Division II West Region Cross Country Championships, at 20th. Now healthy and faster than ever, she looks forward to the 2023 track season.
“I think one of the big things I took from this season was patience,” she says. “When it got really dark with the injuries, it was hard because I wasn’t able to train. I wasn’t even able to match what I did as a 17-year-old out of high school. But I wanted to push through because I knew I could be that person again.”