A world-changing bond between coach and runner

Big Red Athletics
July 19, 2023

Sarah Torrens and her daughter, Ellen Carter ’09, sit on the porch of a two-story farmhouse that’s surrounded by cornfields and filled with memories of a loveable curmudgeon who called it home for nearly 40 years.

The women are joined by a former Denison long-distance runner who remains as ebullient as the day he walked into their life at its lowest point. Makorobondo “Dee” Salukombo ’12 is a six-time All-American and an Olympic marathoner from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

To Sarah and Ellen, he’s even more — a spark of joy who could make coach Phil Torrens smile through his pain.

“Dee was the athlete my dad waited his entire life for,” says Ellen, recalling Torrens, who coached the university’s cross-country and track teams from 1980 to 2015. “He didn’t always have a lot to say, but he lit up when he talked about Dee. This was at a time when my father was really struggling.”

It’s a lazy summer night in rural central Ohio on the eve of a Celebration of Life ceremony that will attract more than 200 people to Denison’s Lamson Lodge. Salukombo, an active-duty member of the U.S. Army stationed in Colorado, requested leave to attend the July 15, 2023, service.

“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” he says.

Denison is a place that inspires connections that last a lifetime. Few run as deep or global as the one between Salukombo and the Torrenses. Theirs is a bond that’s helped strengthen a Central African village riven by decades of war.

Whatever solace Salukombo provided the Torrenses in the wake of family tragedy has been repaid through the educational and athletic opportunities afforded to hundreds of kids in his Congolese village.

“Nothing happens by mistake,” Salukombo says. “God had a plan. He wanted me here. I came to Denison for an education and left with a family who helped make great things happen back home.”

A devastating loss

Salukombo worked all four years at Denison for Sarah, who oversaw the library’s circulation department — a remarkable turn for a refugee who never held a textbook until his family emigrated to Cleveland in 2004.

After winning his first cross-country meet in the fall of 2008, he showed up at the library and listened to Sarah tell him how thrilled her husband was with the race. That was also the first time Sarah spoke to Salukombo about the death of their son.

Joe Torrens, 24, was killed in a single-car accident on June 16, 2007. He was a passenger in a Ford pickup that struck a mailbox and a guardrail before it overturned, sliding down an embankment and landing in a creek bed.

“From that day, it gave my running more meaning,” Salukombo says. “I just wanted to see Coach T smile.”

Torrens and his son were much alike. Each played and coached football. Both were loyal, sarcastic, strong-willed, and opinionated, rarely willing to see the world in shades of gray.

Few things gave the Denison coach more pleasure than farming his 500 acres of land, sipping a Coors Light, and spending time in the barn with his sheep. Beneath the gruff exterior was a man who loved his family and enjoyed helping athletes to reach their potential.

The yearlong recruitment of Salukombo helped Torrens deal with his son’s death. The runner’s prolific high school career drew him offers from Division I college programs, including Ohio State University. But Torrens’ unwavering interest, coupled with the dogged work of a high school guidance counselor who secured financial aid, brought Salukombo to Denison.

“Coach T would call me and ask how I was doing in classes,” Salukombo says. “He came to see me run races. He made it personal, and he showed that he cared.”

Giving back

Torrens spent his entire life in tiny Utica, Ohio, living out his final four decades on a road that bears his family name. Salukombo spent his childhood in chaos, his family fleeing a nation that’s buried more than six million of its own since 1996. 

“In my country, you didn’t run for sport,” Salukombo often says. “You ran for your life.” 

His family escaped harm and lived in a Ugandan refugee camp for three years before a Catholic organization helped relocate them in Cleveland. “It wasn’t just his ability as a runner that attracted Phil,” Sarah says. “He was drawn to the family’s story of survival and how grateful Dee was for everything he received.” 

From their first training session, Torrens and Salukombo made for a wonderful contrast in personality and temperament: the coach rarely cracking a smile beneath his bushy handlebar mustache, the pupil radiating joy across campus. When the popular Salukombo received his diploma — he majored in chemistry — his fellow seniors gave him a thunderous ovation. 

“My education from Denison is what opened doors for me,” Salukombo says. “I wanted the same for kids back home.”

The Torrens family helped make it a reality. Using a $10,000 grant from Davis Projects for Peace, they and Salukombo established Project Kirotshe, named for his village in Congo. Sarah spearheaded a donation drive that shipped 13,000 textbooks, 55 computers, and athletic equipment to Kirotshe to build a learning center and start a running team.

From 2012-19, Salukombo traveled back and forth to Congo to ensure the program’s survival. In 2016, he and one of its students, Beatrice Kamuchanga, represented Congo in the Olympics.

Sarah dreams of visiting the village and touring the Torrens Learning Center. She and Ellen had bought tickets to fly to Congo in 2012, but civil unrest forced them to cancel the trip.

“My biggest accomplishment in life, other than having my two kids, is getting this project off the ground,” Sarah says. “There are many others at Denison who helped along the way. Dee has a goodness about him that makes people want to help.”

‘I want to be like him’

“He came to see me run races. He made it personal, and he showed that he cared.”

Guests stream into Lamson Lodge on a rainy Saturday afternoon to honor Torrens, who died Jan. 15, 2023, and whose ashes were buried at his son’s gravesite.

They see pictures of Coach T through the years and touch memorabilia from his days at Denison. Some former runners are clad in vintage Big Red gear they wore under his command.

Torrens was cynical about the nature of posthumous tributes. He never believed all the “nice things said” about the deceased in obituaries, and he asked his wife not to hold a service for him.

It’s one request Sarah denied.

For more than an hour, speakers stand at a lectern saying nice things about Torrens, who spent his later years traveling the country and visiting his former athletes.

“We need to be more like Coach T,” Salukombo tells the audience huddled under a large white tent. “I want to be like him. I want to take what I learned from him and give that to other people.”

Salukombo, an American citizen, is a 2023 Varsity D Association Hall of Fame inductee. Now married with two children, he continues to run competitively as part of an Army athletic program, and he’s working toward a master’s degree in project management.

Before every big race, Salukombo used to call Torrens for last-minute words of wisdom. Now, he calls Sarah. He also remains in contact with former Denison wellness coordinator Stephanie Agosta, who serves as a fundraiser for the village project, renamed the Kirotshe Foundation. They have built a bakery and developed a tract of land to grow plantains to help feed the village.

More than 1,000 children have seen their lives improved through Salukombo’s vision.

Salukombo tells the audience that kids in his village want to see pictures from the service. They want to hear more stories about Coach T and his family. He concludes his remarks by asking guests to stand and cheer for Sarah and Ellen.

Bathed in applause, Salukombo places a hand on Sarah’s shoulder, a bond unbroken after all these years.

“Dee is this warm, loving person who we needed in our lives,” Sarah says. “He didn’t replace Joe, but he enriched our lives. He is part of our family, and he considers Joe a brother even though they never met.”

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