Traversing the globe with running shoes in tow, student Kaarel Lilleoja competed in Russia at the World University Games July 10, representing Estonia and Biola University.

It was no run around the block for the full-time graduate student to compete this year. After a pit stop home in Estonia, Lilleoja — who is working on his M.A. in intercultural studies — continued his adventure to Kazan, Russia where he is one of two Estonian athletes to compete in the Track & Field men’s 800-meter race.

“It is the second biggest sports event after the Olympics,” said Lilleoja. “I feel really blessed to be able to take part in the games for a third time.”

Lilleoja represents Biola in the games for the first time this year, which he said is a great opportunity to practice international relations — what he is learning at Biola’s Cook School of Intercultural Studies. The games attract more than 10,000 athletes from around the world, making it a cultural hotspot. 

“I am a competitive runner in Estonia committed and training on the national level,” said Lilleoja. “When I came [to Biola], I decided to focus on my studies, but continued to train for middle distance races.”

Once at Biola, Lilleoja quickly discovered the track and field team and started working out with Biola’s men’s team a few days a week, said Jonathan Zimmerman, Biola’s track and field coach.

“To be able to qualify while doing graduate work is amazing,” said Zimmerman. “It shows great courage for him to follow God’s calling to Biola so far from home and continue his training in a completely different area of the world — the weather and language challenges, studies, distance from family and friends — shows Kaarel’s great focus and character.”

After Lilleoja competed in the games for the first time in 2009, he said he realized sports had become an idol.

“So I dedicated my sports to God and changed my focus,” he said. “I told God I was willing to quit, but the Lord freed me to compete and even blessed me with success.”

Lilleoja raced July 10 in the qualifying rounds of the men’s 800-meter race. He placed fifth in his heat.

The runner will return to Biola in the fall for his second year of graduate school. He hopes to become a diplomat and work in diplomatic relations.

“I feel called to work in international and cross-cultural relations so my studies here are really preparing me for that,” said Lilleoja. “I’m enjoying my Bible classes — though not directly related to my future career, they help me grow in my faith and get a solid spiritual foundation especially as I intend to work in a secular field.”

Lilleoja grew up in a Christian home despite living in a secular country that was part of the Soviet Union for 50 years.

“It is still hard for Christians,” he said. “My family and community are mostly Christian, but the Christian community is still very small. I am super grateful to be here at Biola. It has been my dream for a number of years and this year, I felt like I was living a dream every day.”

Alumna Natasha Miller also represented Biola University in the 2011 World University Games in Shenzhen, China.

Written by Jenna Bartlo, Media Relations Specialist. For more information, contact Jenna at 562.777.4061 or