Photo: Connor McCourtney
When Omet Kak first came to the United States, he never expected to become a Division I cross country and track and field athlete. He discovered his talent for competitive running trying to get in shape for another sport, and now he is one of Drake’s top distance runners. However, Kak has had quite the journey to get where he is today.
The sophomore has lived in Des Moines for about six years now, but he was born in Sudan. He spent the majority of his childhood in Sudan, until he was 9 years old, which is when he and his family moved to Egypt. The Kak family resided in Egypt for about three to four years and then finally arrived in the U.S.
The Second Sudanese Civil War made life difficult in Sudan. Almost 2 million people were killed as a result of the war, and the civilian death toll was one of the highest of any war since World War II. Kak’s family decided the best decision was to move.
“We moved around so much because we were trying to find better living,” Kak said. “We didn’t really have a good life in Sudan, and there was the war going on, so we moved.”
He said they always knew their final destination would be the U.S., but they had to clear a few hurdles to get here. Kak’s father left the family in southern Sudan and somehow made it into Syria. He attempted to send for them twice to move to Syria, but both times they were returned to Sudan. During the third attempt the family moved to Egypt, which proved to be an easier way to gain access to the U.S.
Kak and his siblings all had different names when they lived in Sudan. When they moved to the U.S., his father decided to change his name, along with the names of his seven brothers and sisters, so that they did not sound as Arabic.
“My name is actually Omar. I was named after the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, because he came to my hometown the day I was born,” Kak said. “I guess I can see why they changed my name, because the president, he was doing bad things, causing genocide and all that. But I still like my name, I don’t want it to be changed.”
Some of the biggest adjustments Kak had to make were learning English and catching up in school.
“We arrived here in June and school is in August, so two months is not enough time to learn English,” Kak said. “When I enrolled in school, I couldn’t speak English. It was hard going to classes and sometimes I would just skip because I was really miserable.”
Kak attended Des Moines North High School, which is where he discovered his natural running abilities. He was interested in playing soccer and wanted to get in shape for the next spring season, so he joined track his junior year.
After only about two months, Kak was top distance runner on the team. He decided that since he was doing so well, he should join cross country that fall in his senior year.
“That was when I met this guy named Ben Tillis,” Kak said. “He changed my life. It’s because of him that I am here. He became my personal coach because he believed in me after he saw me running one time at regionals.”
Kak said that Tillis thought he had a lot of potential. He began not only training Kak, but also building his confidence. He pushed Kak to be one of the best runners in the state, something Kak didn’t even consider when he started running.
Kak said Tillis was the one who opened the door for Kak to consider running in college. Kak reached the top of the Iowa high school track scene as a senior, being named the 2009 Iowa Gatorade Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
Despite the efforts of Drake head track and field coach Natasha Brown to recruit Kak right out of high school, Kak initially chose to run at Northern Iowa. After his first year, though, he transferred to Drake. Now Kak is ready to run in his first Drake Relays as a Bulldog.
“I will try my best and hope it’s good enough,” Kak said. “I’m very thankful I can run at Drake Relays while wearing a Drake uniform. It doesn’t get better than that.”