Coach Dey

Sixth graders learn about Sudan from John Jay coach

The sixth graders looked up in awe at the tall and slim Sudanese man who greeted them as they entered the school theater. Coach Dey looked exactly like what they expected an internationally ranked runner to look like. What the students didn’t realize, however, was the secret to his success was invisible.

“70% of running is here,” Coach Dey tapped his forehead. “That’s what I want students to know.”

Motivation. Pacing. Persistence.

Vivid, personal dimension to 'A Long Walk to Water'

Desperate circumstances gave Coach Dey, whose name is Dey Dey, opportunities to see the value of persistence, pacing and motivation. He works to pass the traits on to John Jay’s varsity women’s runners and puts them into practice in his own track career. On May 28, he shared them with John Jay’s sixth grade. Their teachers, with the support of KLSD Arts Alive, arranged for Coach Dey to speak to students because of the vivid personal dimension he brings to “A Long Walk to Water,” an all-grade read about a boy who escaped war-torn Sudan.

Coach Dey spoke to each sixth-grade team in an interview format, with a map of South Sudan projected behind him. As students and teachers asked him questions, they learned about his journey.

students gather round Coach Dey

fleeing for his life

Like Salva, the boy in “A Long Walk to Water,” Coach Dey is from Sudan and was separated from his parents by war. He was helping care for his uncle’s cows, as a seven-year-old, when fighting broke out nearby.

He and his uncle’s family escaped on foot, walking for months to get to safety in Ethiopia.

“I walked about four hours a day,” said Coach Dey. “My uncle would carry me for two hours more.”

finding security in refugee camp

They found shelter at the Dimma Refugee Camp, administered by the United Nations, where he lived for the next nine and a half years. Coach Dey said that food rations were delivered once a month; it was up to each person to make the rations last. “I still dream about that camp,” said Coach Dey. “I was not with my brother or sister, but everyone in the camp became my brothers and my sisters.”

Representatives from the UN checked in on the children in the refugee camp every Tuesday and Thursday. As the years went by, they began suggesting that he relocate. Finally, Coach Dey said he was ready to leave. The UN chose Colorado as his new home. He arrived just before his sixteenth birthday.

'i want to go to school'

Coach Dey’s caseworker in Colorado placed him in his own apartment and suggested he take English classes and find a job. It was lonely. He began learning English by watching the cartoon “It's a Big, Big World,” and thought about going to school.

Six months after he arrived in the US, he made his first friend: Peter, who came from his village in southern Sudan. While walking, they happened to pass by the local high school. Coach Dey knew that this was where he would go. Against his caseworker’s advice, he enrolled in school, and shared a home with his countryman.

“The track coach at the high school thought I was a runner because I am African,” said Coach Dey. “They asked me if I’d train with the team.”

They did an eight-mile run, and Dey led the pack.

Running led Coach Dey to a full scholarship to the University of Arkansas and competing in the US championships for a chance to go to the Olympics.

giving back

“Running is part of me; it is the reason I am here talking to you about my life,” he said.

In “A Long Walk for Water,” Salva eventually returns to Sudan to install deep-water wells in remote villages in dire need of clean water. Coach Dey told the students that he also feels drawn to return to Sudan. “When I have a chance, I will visit a refugee camp,” he said. “Without that camp I wouldn’t be here today.”

'Running is part of me'