Third-graders joyously sang traditional songs in Swahili and danced to the music for thrilled members of the Kenyan running team in the elaborately decorated gymnasium at the Elmwood Elementary School in Hopkinton on Thursday morning, just as students have been doing here annually for the past 21 years.
This time, however, there was added meaning to the annual celebration of sport, friendship, and community.
“What could be a more important message for our children than the one in which we convey today — that supporting one another through tragedies and challenges is just as important as celebrating with one another,” Elmwood principal David Ljungberg said.
His sentiments were echoed by Jean Kamau, Kenya’s ambassador to the United States, who spoke not only of the bombings at last year’s Boston Marathon, but also of the terrorist attack that killed at least 67 people at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi last September.
“We stand in solidarity with Boston; we will be strong,” she told the second- and third-graders waving American and Kenyan flags, teachers, administrators, parents, and town officials who packed the gymnasium.
“We as Kenyans feel grateful today, and we will come again, and again, to this important event,” she said.
The visit by the Kenyan runners to the Elmwood School has become a tradition in Hopkinton, which hosts the starting line for the Boston Marathon. Leading up to the event, students spend 16 class hours studying about Kenya, it’s people, culture, geography, climate, and language, “opening their eyes to the world beyond the walls of their classroom,” according to Ljungberg.
Against a backdrop of strobe lights and Katy Perry’s song “Roar,” students clapped and fist-bumped each of the 14 Kenyan runners as they were individually introduced, including two-time Boston Marathon winner Rita Jeptoo and Olympic bronze medalist Micah Kogo, who finished second in Boston last year.
“It’s such a great honor to be here as an ambassador for my country. It is very special, and I feel great,” Kogo said after spending time speaking with a small group of students after the event.
For Hopkinton High School senior Melissa Lodge, a distance runner on the school’s track and cross-country teams, Marathon day in town “is like Christmas,” and the lessons she learned as a little girl at Elmwood still resonate.
“I wanted to be like the Kenyans, because who wouldn’t want to be? They are fast, caring, happy, and hard-working,” she said.
“Their positive outlook on life inspired me that I could always overcome any small bumps in the road,” she said.
As the third-graders sang their songs in Swahili, Lodge and many of her teammates bobbed their heads and mouthed the words to the tunes they still remember from their days at Elmwood.
“It’s something that has definitely stayed with me, definitely,” she said.
The day began at Town Hall where a reception was held for the Kenyan ambassador.
Among those greeting Kamau was Dimitri Kyriakides, the son of Greek running legend and winner of the 50th Boston Marathon, Stylianos Kyriakides.
Kyriakides was sitting in the stands at the finish line with Hopkinton resident Tim Kilduff last April when the bombs went off.
“For 45 minutes we couldn’t talk. We were together, but we were shocked,” he said.
“So this year is special for me and for everyone. It’s like I came back here to support the people of this city and to tell the world we are not only here, but we are not defeated,” he said.
On Thursday afternoon, Greek Consul General Ifigenia Kanapa presented the Boston Athletic Association with the winners’ olive wreaths. This year, Kyriakides noted, they are dipped in 24-karat gold.
“Normally, the wreaths are just olive leaves from Greece,” he said, but this year, just as had been done in 2010 to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the battle of Marathon, the wreaths will be golden.
“We are celebrating everything that the Marathon represents,” he said.
Thursday’s events in Hopkinton gave everyone a chance to start celebrating this year’s race, according to Louise Santosuosso, an assistant vice president at John Hancock, which is a sponsor of the race and the Elmwood event.
“It’s been a challenging and very meaningful year. On Tuesday we were able to honor those affected by last year’s events,” she said. “And today we are able to again come back to Hopkinton for this event and share the children’s joy.”