Futsum Zeinasellassie: Making it in America

By Mike Grimala

North Central (Indianapolis, Ind.) junior Futsum Zeinasellassie arrived in Indiana from Africa in seventh grade; A few years later, he’s a three-time state champ with Olympic aspirations

Futsum Zeinasellassie ESPN

Futsum Zeinasellassie of North Central (Indianapolis, Ind.) is just a junior, but he’s already one of the nation’s elite distance runners. Photo By: Brian Spurlock

Futsum Zeinasellassie is already one of the best distance runners in the country, so imagine how good he’s going to be when he finally gets the hang of it.

Though Zeinasellassie won the IHSAA cross country championship last year and the outdoor track 3,200 title as a freshman and sophomore, he’s a relative newcomer to the sport. Now a junior at North Central, he’s been running for only three years.

He’s also a relative newcomer to America. A native of Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa, Zeinasellassie moved to the U.S. in middle school. And as he’s gotten more comfortable with his surroundings, athletic success has followed.

When Zeinasellassie arrived in America as a seventh-grader, soccer was his sport. He didn’t give much thought to running until a gym teacher convinced him to try cross country during eighth grade.

His natural talent for the sport was immediately obvious. His first efforts were so fast, North Central coach Rick Stover couldn’t wait for him to arrive as a freshman.

“He was very, very smooth,” says Stover. “He was out in the front the whole time, but you could see he was also very raw at the time. I knew once he got to high school and started working on it, he was going to be special.”

Futsum Zeinasellassie ESPN

Futsum Zeinasellassie, a native of Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa, moved to the U.S. in middle school. Photo by: Brian Spurlock

Zeinasellassie was surprised at how easily the sport came to him, but he also knew he needed to work harder if he wanted to realize his potential.

“It wasn’t that hard for me,” he says. “I was just trying to have a good time and beat my personal times. People would come up to me after and congratulate me, so I liked that. Still, there were a lot of things I was not doing correctly. I didn’t know the right way to train.”

Luckily for Zeinasellassie, he had the perfect coach in his older brother, Bahlbi. Bahlbi wasn’t able to move to America at the same time as Futsum; instead he spent a year in an Ethiopian refugee camp before being cleared to enter the country in the summer of 2008. But Bahlbi was a serious distance runner, and Futsum wasted no time mining his brother’s knowledge.

“The first day I got here, he asked me to run with him,” says Bahlbi, who is two years older than Futsum. “I just came from the refugee camp and he beat me. He was so happy. After a week or two, I got my conditioning and I really started to work with him that summer.”

“I never even knew how much to run,” Futsum adds. “Bahlbi taught me how to train. When he came over, we started running over 40 miles every week. We trained a lot, and he was definitely one of the people who helped me the most.”

By the time the high school cross country season started, Zeinasellassie was a machine. He won every race his freshman year, up until the state meet. At the start of the IHSAA race, another runner stepped on his shoe and gave him a flat tire. Zeinasellassie had to pull to the side and fix his shoe, costing him about 10 seconds. He eventually finished second.

“He probably would have won,” says Stover. “He gave everyone a 200-meter head start and still almost pulled it out.”

After the state meet, Zeinasellassie went to the Foot Locker Midwest Regional in Wisconsin and took fourth. Two weeks later, he traveled to San Diego for the Foot Locker National Championships and finished seventh, the best showing by a freshman in the event’s history.

He continued his dominance through the spring season by running away with the 3,200 state championship.

Last year, Zeinasellassie spent much of the cross country season experimenting with race strategies. He lost one race during the season but had no problem dominating the field at the state meet, winning by 10 seconds.

Zeinasellassie wasn’t totally satisfied with the cross country season, however. After the state meet, he wasn’t able to participate in any of the national races. Final exams at North Central were approaching, and he wanted to put his academics ahead of his running pursuits.

“English is my second language, so I really have to concentrate on my schoolwork,” he says. “Math and world history are subjects I am good at, but English is hard. I have to study hard and put that first.”

It’s just another example of Zeinasellassie’s ongoing adjustment to life in America. Bahlbi is also helping in that regard, as the two brothers are extremely close away from the track. “When he was not here it was hard,” says Futsum. “He watches out for me and cares for me. I can ask him anything and he will help me out. We talk about everything, not just running. We have a really good relationship.”

One of Zeinasellassie’s goals this year is to stay on top of his course work and compete at the national events. He could definitely contend for a national championship, especially if he irons out some of the rough edges in his approach to racing.

His in-race strategy is still spotty, but Zeinasellassie and Stover will continue working on it this season and figure out a style that works.

“Last year, we tried different things during the year,” says Stover. “He tried laying back and sprinting past, and he tried getting out in front and setting the pace. But I think his strength is in the middle of the race. He can go out and hammer it from the very first step and bury people in the middle.”

With Bahlbi off at college this year, Futsum is taking it on himself to step up his workout program, increase his focus and dominate the cross country season. Beyond that, he dreams of earning a Division I college scholarship and one day running in the Olympics.

By then, we’ll surely know how good Zeinasellassie can be.

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