Back on Track

by Gary Pine

On the streets of Marion, Indiana, a place far from home, Emma DeLira ’11 (pictured above, center) became a different kind of runner. She wasn’t running for herself. She wasn’t running away, and she wasn’t running to ease the pain. This time, for the first time, she was running for others. And in the storied history of Azusa Pacific track and field, this runner—with no awards or accolades to her name—will forever be remembered as a difference maker to the program.

Before arriving at Azusa Pacific, DeLira was lost, drifting in life, unsure of where she came from and where she was going. After two years of study at Mount San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) in Walnut, California, her hopes of attending the University of Southern Mississippi crashed with Hurricane Katrina. Later, she tried a college in Iowa, but backed out at the last minute. The situation didn’t feel right to her.

Running from Her Troubles

The only thing DeLira was sure of was that she liked to run. It eased the pain of a difficult childhood and an unhealthy home life, and took her mind off her eating disorders. Running took her away from her troubles, and the more she ran, the longer they stayed away. DeLira ran so much that the Mt. SAC coaches assumed she was an athlete and invited her to join the track and field team. With a complete lack of youth or high school sports experience, she joined the Mountie team and enjoyed some moderate success. But when her studies and running career eventually fell through, DeLira found work at a local Starbucks.

One day, Amanda Valenzuela, a UCLA doctoral student who frequently studied at Starbucks, took an interest in Emma, and over time, filled her life with words of encouragement and hope. Valenzuela, along with her husband, Rudy, and their child, Christian, eventually took DeLira into their home.

Meanwhile, former Mt. SAC teammate Sara Ireland, who had already graduated from Azusa Pacific, kept pushing DeLira to resume her educational and athletic pursuits at APU. “I wasn’t going there,” said DeLira, who admittedly battled serious issues of trust. “I didn’t know much about Azusa Pacific, but I knew it was a Christian school and it couldn’t be ‘fun.’”

A New Direction, a New Home

However, with nothing else promising in her life, DeLira called Azusa Pacific Cross Country Coach Preston Grey, and to her surprise, he invited her on the spot to join the team. She chose Azusa Pacific sight unseen and didn’t meet a teammate until the squad was packing the vans to take off for two weeks of August training in Mammoth Lakes, California. “I was a bit nervous,” said DeLira. “I didn’t know how the girls would react because I wasn’t Christian like them. How was I going to fit into a school where everyone was a Christian and they knew the Bible inside and out?”

DeLira had a nominal Catholic heritage that was more about culture than lifestyle, but she did believe in God—only because she had an overwhelming need to be mad at something bigger than herself for the way her life had turned out. Within days, though, she knew she had a found a home, one like never before, one she had longed for. “[Azusa Pacific] was home,” said DeLira. “I felt safe and comfortable. I loved it! I could trust my teammates. I could see it in their eyes and know in my heart that they were genuine. They cared about me.”

The Blessing of Family

DeLira ran unremarkable cross country and track and field seasons last year at Azusa Pacific—until May 29, 2010, in Marion, Indiana. Early that morning, on the final day of the NAIA Outdoor Track and Field National Championship Meet, 33 women took to the streets to run a 26.2-mile marathon, including Azusa Pacific senior Stephanie Godfrey and then-junior DeLira. Together they had trained all year for this race, so together they ran the first 24 miles, until a competitor threatened to pass them and claim the final team point. With Godfrey’s blessing, DeLira pulled away, kept the competitor at bay, and finished eighth, giving Azusa Pacific one point. Seven hours later, when the meet concluded, Azusa Pacific was crowned the national champion, beating Oklahoma Baptist University by one point, 61-60.

“I still think about that moment,” said DeLira. “Each of those miles represents an individual who made a big difference in my life throughout last year. If I wasn’t happy and loved, I don’t think that point would have mattered to me.” That day, she ran for her teammates because they were her family.

DeLira says she knows God today. He is different than what she understood before. She has seen Him in her teammates. Void of true love for much of her life, DeLira is beginning to understand how much God loves her—not because she scored a point to win a national championship, but because she found safety and acceptance among His people at Azusa Pacific.

Gary Pine ’84, MBA ’03, is the associate athletic director and sports information director.