2010.04.13: Runner Erik Heinonen works with Sports Camps in Moldova

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Moldova: Peace Corps Moldova : Peace Corps Moldova: Newest Stories: 2010.04.13: Runner Erik Heinonen works with Sports Camps in Moldova

By Admin1 (admin) ( on Sunday, May 30, 2010 - 2:24 pm: Edit Post

Runner Erik Heinonen works with Sports Camps in Moldova

Runner Erik Heinonen works with Sports Camps in Moldova

The biggest obstacle I faced in Moldova, and one of the biggest obstacle the country faces in general, is fighting indifference or resignation. On the whole the country is better off than in the mid 90s after the Soviet Union collapsed, and there is definite growth taking place in the capitol city Chisinau. Rural poverty, though, has actually worsened in the last decade and there's essentially no money to repair or rebuild crumbling Soviet era infrastructure in the countryside. The lack of jobs has forced more than a quarter of the population to go aboard to work in Russia or Western Europe, mostly younger people, and the older generation that never knew anything but the Soviet system has had to make sense of everything changing overnight in the early 90s. The Soviet system was far from perfect, but it functioned.

Runner Erik Heinonen works with Sports Camps in Moldova

Interview with Peace Corps volunteer and runner Erik Heinonen

By Kelly Johnson, community blogger

April 13, 2010, 8:42AM

i{Capotion: Heinonen with his finished project - a play and sports structure for all.}

The other day we posted a chance for five of our readers to come hear Erik Heinonen speak at Fit Right NW on Wednesday, April 14th. Heinonen, who recently appeared in Runner's World, ran competitively in high school and competed for the always-tough University of Colorado Buffaloes, but then chose the Peace Corps over pursuing a professional running career. Heinonen spent the next few years working in Moldova to create a community sports facility and work with youth.

Thanks to the Oregon Sports Authority and Fit Right NW, we were able to interview Heinonen about his experience and his running before his presentation tomorrow night, where we'll be able to ask him even more about his experiences. If you have questions you'd like us to ask, email them to us at runoregonblog@gmail.com and we'll get back to you after the presentation tomorrow night.

RunOregon: Why Moldova?

When I initially applied for the Peace Corps, I had hoped to go to Africa. I lived with two architecture students from Kenya my first two years at the University of Oregon, and I had been pretty touched by a trip my family took to Kenya when I was in high school to visit friends who lived in Nairobi.

With Peace Corps, however, you don't have a whole lot of say in where you go. They ask for your preferences as far as regions of the world, but they ultimately decide what the best fit for you is based on your work experience and the slots that are open. Even though I hadn't really thought about Eastern Europe initially, I was pretty excited when I found out I would be teaching health education and life skills and organizing after school activities.

I didn't have any teaching experience, but I had worked at sports camps a number of summers, done a little coaching and been involved with children's literacy programs before, so I felt like it would be a good place for me.

RunOregon: What was the hardest thing about making the decision to pause your competitive running career?

The hardest thing about deciding to do Peace Corps rather than exploring professional running was simply that running post-collegiately had been my big goal since I started running seriously in high school. I didn't have huge dreams starting college, but based on what I'd done, I felt like I could be someone who could one day competed for spots on world cross country championships teams and who could run a good marathon.

I poured myself into that goal of being a successful runner for a long time, and held on to it through a frustrating college career in which I dealt with one injury after another and watched guys I used to beat or be competitive with run fast times and win big races. By the end of my last track season, I had more or less come to the conclusion that, look, this isn't going to happen, and that summer I started the Peace Corps application process.

I ended up being granted a sixth year of cross country eligibility several weeks later (I ran two cross country races during my first four years of college), and I managed to stay healthy and put together a good enough season that after the NCAA cross country meet the Hanson's group from Michigan contacted me about coming out to join their team. I was pretty close to going, but in the end it just didn't feel like the right decision. I knew what kind of commitment it meant, and my heart was really pulling me to Peace Corps.

I still wonder at times what I might have been able to do in the marathon had I been able to train consistently for two or three years, but even then I wouldn't trade it for the experience I had in Moldova. I'd spent a lot of time pursuing running pretty single-mindedly, and it was an amazing feeling to be able to spend two years trying to channel that the kind of daily diligence you need to have to be a successful runner into teaching and community projects and realizing that I felt as passionately about that as I had about running.

RunOregon: Can you tell me about friends or family members, or other factors, that helped you make your decision?

I actually grew up knowing what Peace Corps was because my parents served in Chile in 1973 and 1974 right after they got married. They are both very active in the running community and very supportive of my running career and the idea of me going out to Michigan, but they were also really excited that I wanted to take the two years to explore something new. My friends, teammates and coaches at CU were really supportive too. They understood how frustrating and draining college running had been, and were hoping I would find something I was passionate about as I was about running.

Ultimately, though, the decision really came down to wanting to do my small, little part. I'd had a really nice life in which I could chase my dreams, and I wanted spend that time trying to do the best I could to help people who hadn't been that fortunate.

RunOregon: What was the biggest obstacle in your work in Moldova?

The biggest obstacle I faced in Moldova, and one of the biggest obstacle the country faces in general, is fighting indifference or resignation. On the whole the country is better off than in the mid 90s after the Soviet Union collapsed, and there is definite growth taking place in the capitol city Chisinau. Rural poverty, though, has actually worsened in the last decade and there's essentially no money to repair or rebuild crumbling Soviet era infrastructure in the countryside. The lack of jobs has forced more than a quarter of the population to go aboard to work in Russia or Western Europe, mostly younger people, and the older generation that never knew anything but the Soviet system has had to make sense of everything changing overnight in the early 90s. The Soviet system was far from perfect, but it functioned.

Given all that, it's hard to blame people for not having much faith in things getting better or for being mostly concerned with their day-to-day existence and not eager to get involved in community projects-kind of ironic given the idea of the collective that was supposedly such a key part of Soviet ideology at least as far as we understood in the West. Add to that that most people in the village are working themselves to the bone everyday to make ends meet, and it's not hard to understand why the notion of volunteerism isn't well developed-if extant at all.

For me, that translated to struggles at times to get people to believe and participate in what we wanted to do in the village. My students, especially the younger ones, were amazing, and totally gung-ho when it came to pitching in on the sports complex, but it really took until we were well into the building phase before the rest of the village started to believe that we were actually going to do what we had been promising. As excited as I was that we succeeded in building the complex, the most rewarding thing was that in the end so many of the kids helped out and got to see their hard work turn into something that the whole community will benefit from.

RunOregon: Did you already speak the language or was it on-the-job learning?

Learning Romanian, which is the language I taught in and spoken by most of the population, was definitely a learn-on-the-job thing. Peace Corps sent us some basic Romanian language lessons before we left, but it was basically starting from zero when we arrived in country.

Fortunately, Peace Corps is structured such that you do 10 weeks of language and technical training before you move to the community where you will be working for your two years, so if you apply yourself, and continue working hard on your language learning after training you will be speaking pretty well by the time you've been there for six months. Honestly, I felt like I spoke better-and certainly more confidently-after six or seven weeks in Moldova than I ever spoke Spanish even though I studied it from 6th through 12th grade and was a good student.

RunOregon: Did you run much when you were there?

I started Peace Corps with the idea that I would run as much as my schedule would allow me. Running would be my personal, "me time" thing, but I didn't want it to ever take precedence over the work that I was there to do. I was able to run as much as 65-70 miles a week at times during the first eight months, but I hurt my back in the spring of 2008 and never was able to get it healed while I was there. That was hard to deal with, but I felt so good about the work that we were doing, that while I did miss it, it didn't leave the gaping hole in my life that it might have in other circumstances. In the end I was able to use the hour-and-a-half a day-plus the extra energy- I would have spent training doing more work at school or spending more time playing with kids in my neighborhood. The running in the countryside that I did though was pretty amazing: lots of dirt roads, long hills and forest.

RunOregon: How was running there different from in the US?

I can't speak super well to the degree to which sport is developed on the whole in Moldova because I was in rural areas for nearly all my time there. Little kids play outside a lot, soccer is a really big deal, and there are sports schools that some kids attend when they're a little older, but again the infrastructure is lacking, both in terms of facilities in a lot of places, but also the politically and organizationally, which I suspect is not uncommon in other smaller, developing countries. It's a pretty stark contrast to the states where so many kids participate in high school sports, college and professional sports are such a huge deal, and running is such a common participatory sport.

Moldova actually had a couple of athletes that participated in Beijing, including Ion Luchainov, a male steeplechaser who made the final, and Olga Cristea, a female 800-meter runner who made the semi finals and was the European junior champion a few years ago. It's too bad that the organizational infrastructure and the opportunities to participate aren't really there, because there has to be some real talent in the country. Romania and Ukraine, the two neighboring countries pretty regularly produces good distance runners, and there's no reason Moldova, despite being much smaller, couldn't too.

RunOregon: Are you racing when you're back in the US? What are your running goals/plans?

When I decided to join Peace Corps it was more or less meant that running wasn't going to be my top priority again. That being said, I really enjoy training: being on the track, long runs, all of it. Fortunately, the disk problem in my back finally calmed down last November, and I was able to start running again. It was pretty minimal at first after 18 months of no running, but I was back up to 60-65 miles a week in February and doing some track workouts for fun. Down the road I definitely plan to give the marathon a try. My dad's PR is probably safe, but I hope I can run in the low 2:20s fitting it into the things I hope to do work-wise.

RunOregon: Do you have any suggestions how local runners can make an impact in their running community?

Certainly, the community needs of a village in rural Eastern Europe and a neighborhood in Eugene or Bend or Portland are very different in many ways, but the neat thing is that the idea of a community project-one that solves local problems through solutions based primarily on local resources and participation of community members-is the same.

Generally, the greater the degree to which a community is involved in a project the more ownership it feels in the result and the more confidence it will have in its ability to solve other problems. The neat thing about the States is that the idea of volunteerism is already well-developed here, and there are lots of opportunities already out there.

It's really a matter of just making time for volunteer work, the same time we would make time for run or a trip to the gym. It's pretty amazing the relationships you can build with people, and particularly with kids in just an hour or two per week, whether its a mentoring program like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, a children's literacy program like Start Making a Reader Today (SMART), volunteer coaching or helping out at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter.

The one thing to remember is that all those things started when somebody recognized a need in their community and came up with a way of solving it, and that's something that anybody can do who is willing to commit some time and effort. It could be as simple as starting a neighborhood walk-to-school program or organizing a group of kids to build a community garden.

Links to Related Topics (Tags):

Headlines: April, 2010; Peace Corps Moldova; Directory of Moldova RPCVs; Messages and Announcements for Moldova RPCVs; Sports

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Story Source: Oregonian

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