Rmidi Kinini wrapping up 'Once in a Lifetime' career in top form
By Will DeBoer
Feb. 9, 2017
PRINCESS ANNE, Maryland - The first time he ran, he didn't even have the right shoes.
Khalil Rmidi Kinini had followed his older brother Oussama to a road race in their native Spain. Like any little brother, Khalil wanted to do what Oussama, six years his senior, did. Big bro invited him to run in the race as well. Khalil was wearing soccer cleats. He finished second.
"I wasn't really fast at the beginning," recalled Rmidi Kinini of his first foray into distance running, "but I enjoyed running and I was kind of good. So, I told my brother I wanted to do that, and that's how I started running."
Once he got the proper footwear, Rmidi Kinini's career took off. Now a senior for Maryland Eastern Shore's cross country and indoor/outdoor track teams, the Malaga, Spain native has become the Hawks' most decorated runner ever, holding dozens of school records, earning an entire trophy case's worth of individual race wins, and pacing a men's cross country MEAC championship three-peat.
After his spike-laden debut, Rmidi Kinini quickly made a name for himself in local cross country circles. He surprised all comers by finishing strong in the Spanish national championship in 2012, earning the right to represent Spain at the World Cross Country Championships and finishing third in his age group. While most observers considered him to come out of nowhere, Rmidi Kinini knew how he got there and why he belonged.
"People don't always realize how much hard work goes into this," said Rmidi Kinini. "Talent is part of it, but work is the other 80 percent. You can tell how proud someone is by how much work they put into it."
With college on the horizon, one of Rmidi Kinini's good high school friends sold him on the idea of coming to America. Always one to recruit international athletes, Coach Barrett caught wind of Rmidi Kinini through a recruiting website that featured scouting reports on European runners. Reaching out during one of the last weeks of the signing period, Barrett convinced his star prospect that Princess Anne was the place to be.
"He told me the good things about Eastern Shore and how he wanted to build a distance program," Rmidi Kinini said. "He convinced me and I signed. I didn't know what Maryland Eastern Shore was or where it was, I just wanted to come here."
After his transatlantic move, Rmidi Kinini experienced the expected culture shock. Not just the weather, food, and English speakers on TV, he went from a city of over half a million people to a rural outpost on southern Delmarva whose local "metropolis" -- Salisbury -- boasts 30,000 people.
It wasn't just the new locale: Rmidi Kinini had to make the transition from a high school runner, practicing three days a week, to a Division I college athlete with six-day-a-week practice and frequent two-a-days.
"I'll tell you this: all kids that are new have to adapt," said Barrett. "Nothing is guaranteed. There was some tension because he wasn't used to collegiate running, but eventually he did adapt.
"I saw potential in him freshman year, but he really took off his sophomore year. After he won that first conference championship, and based on how he was going through training, I said, `Ho, we've really got someone special here!'"
While running is an individual sport on the surface, it was the Hawks' team aspect that most helped Rmidi Kinini adjust to the dual culture shock.
"Being on a team did make it easier," Rmidi Kinini said. "Sometimes I would go to practice and coach would say, `Do this,' and I would say, `Yes, yes,' without understanding what he was saying. But I had teammates who could help me and explain what I had to do.
"Running is an individual sport if you don't have a team, but when you do it does become a team sport. When we go to championships we compete as a team. Not just one person wins a ring, but the whole team wins a ring."
Thanks in part to Rmidi Kinini, Hawk cross country teams have been able to show off rings on multiple fingers over the years. Eastern Shore won its third straight MEAC cross country title in October, capping a long undefeated run through league competition. Rmidi Kinini won the 8K race in a time of 24:27.88, winning his third straight individual championship by a full 22 seconds and seizing a record third MEAC Most Outstanding Runner crown.
While Rmidi Kinini stood tall for The Shore on the podium, it was the teammates he and Barrett cultivated who filled in the gaps for the team title.
"Khalil is one of the kids we can always count on to help people," said Barrett. "He went home to Spain after his sophomore year for national trials and Oussama Chouati was competing in the steeplechase. He said, `Come and join me, train with me, and we can build a strong distance program here in the United States.' And Oussama bought in."
Thanks in part to Rmidi Kinini's efforts, Eastern Shore started becoming a destination school. Fellow Spaniard Albert Guerrero signed on in 2016, joining a coed roster that featured international students from the Bahamas, Dominica, and Kenya; American runners from as far away as Alaska; and transfers from schools in Arkansas and Virginia.
"Khalil is a good marketer of the program," Barrett said. "He took freshmen in on visits and convinced them to `Train with me and we're going to win some conference championships.' And you see how that's turned out."
With the team legacy secured, for his senior season Rmidi Kinini set his sights on the one individual threshold that had eluded him: a trip to the NCAA Cross Country National Championships. A bid at the 2015 Mid-Atlantic Regionals at Princeton fell short with Rmidi Kinini crossing the finish line holding a shredded shoe in his hands.
For the man who had done everything else in his collegiate career, the 2016 season was his last chance.
So runner and coach set out on vigorous training with Rmidi Kinini constantly increasing his distance and endurance. Eventually Barrett saw a man who was ready for whatever the regional race would throw at him.
"When I saw that he was able to do those kinds of workouts, I convinced him that, `Man, you can run with anybody in this country,'" said Barrett. "It's not hard to convince a kid who has the heart and desire to make it happen."
The day to make it happen came on Nov. 11 at Penn State, one of the toughest road courses in the Mid-Atlantic. Aiming for a Top-5 finish that would earn an automatic slot at nationals, Rmidi Kinini maintained his composure and his patience for the first few miles and put himself in position for the mark.
"I knew when we reached that last mile it was only going to be a pack of about 10 runners. When there was a mile to go, there were only about five of us, so I knew all I had to do was keep running in the group. Don't fall off the group, just be patient and finish."
Rmidi Kinini completed his 10K run in 30:54, crossing the finish line in fifth place, three seconds in front of sixth. Exhausted, he collapsed on the ground for a good five minutes after the race. When he finally got up and his teammates came over to shower him in adoration, it sunk in that he was going to nationals. He did it.
"I was on cloud nine," mused Barrett with a big grin. "It's unbelievable for what we achieve here, being a small program. We had come full circle and put ourselves on the map."
And so, eight days later at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Khalil Rmidi Kinini became the first Hawk runner to compete at the NCAA Cross Country National Championships, and the first national representative of an HBCU in a decade. Battling the frigid late fall Midwestern gusts and an in-race spiking that forced him to finish sans shoes, Rmidi Kinini finished the 10K 218th out of 256 runners, crossing the line in 31:55.8 with a 5:08 mile split.
"We walked out there, him and I, and there was a lot of pride," said Barrett, who also attended his first cross country national championship as a coach. "Everybody was looking at us like, `What are you guys doing here?' I was extremely elated."
"I was proud because I knew I was starting something new," said Rmidi Kinini. "I wasn't going to be the first and last one to attend cross country nationals. That's what we're doing here; we're trying to build a distance program that can achieve even more."
"I was so proud of him," added Barrett. "I'm at a loss for words what we achieved together. Everything begins with a dream, we put that plan in place, and the results speak for themselves."
With his latest career milestone in the rearview, Rmidi Kinini now sets his sights on finishing strong on the track. He has already earned two MEAC Runner of the Week awards this indoor season and two weeks ago helped the men's distance medley relay team win at the Wesley Brown Invitational at the United States Naval Academy, breaking a 14-year-old Navy record in the process. Last weekend against top competition at the Villanova Invitational in New York City, Rmidi Kinini won the mile and broke his own record in the process.
"Right now I'm motivated to just achieve what I've achieved these past years," said Rmidi Kinini of his final indoor and outdoor seasons. "I want to break all the records I can and put my name in the books."
His coach sees him doing that and so much more. Observes Barrett with the telltale chills that always come when he talks about his prized runner, "He's in the best shape of his life."
With graduation approaching, Rmidi Kinini carefully mulls over his time after Princess Anne. While full-time employment is always an option for the marketing major, he still aspires to turn pro and continue competing for the Spanish national team, representing his homeland in world championships and perhaps even the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
No matter where he ends up, Rmidi Kinini knows he'll remember his time at Maryland Eastern Shore with great fondness, and he hopes his program does the same.
"I really want to be remembered as a hard worker," said Rmidi Kinini. "Nothing was given to me. Nothing was ever given to me. So, I want to be remembered as someone who didn't have much but because of hard work earned everything he had."
His coach has no doubt he'll be remembered as that and so much more.
"Come on now," answered Barrett with a robust laugh when asked how he personally will remember the man the entire program knows as simply Khalil.
"This is a kid who bought in, he's coachable, and he's a very rare gem to find. And I'm hoping I can do it again. Cause this is a dream for me."
Khalil and the rest of the Hawk indoor track team head north to Boston on Saturday for the David Hemery St. Valentine's Classic. MEAC Indoor Championships begin on Feb. 16 in Landover, Md., while nationals in College Station, Texas are set for March 10-11. The outdoor track season begins a week later at the Wake Forest Open in Winston-Salem, N.C.
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