Futsum Zeinasellassie wasn’t expecting to be moved to tears when he got to school Thursday.
The North Central High School senior became emotional after he was presented with the 2011-12 Gatorade National Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year award during class. He is the first runner from Indiana to win since the Gatorade awards began in 1985.
The honor is based on athletic excellence, academic achievement and exemplary character.
“This is amazing. I can’t put it into words,” Zeinasellassie said. “This is the greatest surprise I’ve ever got.”
As a state winner, Zeinasellassie was eligible for the national honor.
“I thought the national (award) was out of my league. I never expected to get this,” he said. “This is not because I did it myself. This is help from a bunch of people.”
The 5-8, 134-pound Zeinasellassie, who was born in the African nation of Eritrea and moved to the U.S. when he was 14, won his third consecutive state cross-country title last fall by 44 seconds. He won the Nike Cross Nationals with a course record time of 15:02.41 in Portland, Ore., on Dec. 3. Then he finished second in the Foot Locker National Championships in San Diego on Dec. 10.
Dathan Ritzenhein, who trains at Nike, is a former American record holder in the 5,000 meters. He is training for the U.S. Olympic Trials in June for the 5K and 10K and was commentating on the webcast for the Nike Nationals.
“I was astounded how good he was, how amazing his finish was and how dominant he ran,” Ritzenhein said. “I was really impressed when he came back the next weekend and just narrowly lost the Foot Locker championship. Going back-to-back weekends like that, that was more impressive than anything else.”
Ritzenhein said everything he sees about Zeinasellassie points to him eventually becoming a superstar.
North Central cross-country coach Rick Stover said Zeinasellassie and older brother Bahlbi Gebreyohanns, now a sophomore running at Northern Arizona, had an immediate impact when they arrived in Zeinasellassie’s freshman year.
“They turned the team around with the discipline they brought, their work ethic and their character,” Stover said. “Futsum very rarely got beat and when he did, he learned from it. That made him the runner he is today. With his four years of athletic achievement, I honestly feel he’s the best-ever cross-country runner ever for Indiana.”
Zeinasellassie, who will pursue his fourth 3,200-meter title at the state track meet this spring, is still deciding where to attend college. Among the schools he is considering are Indiana, Purdue and Butler.
Zeinasellassie will go to Los Angeles in July, when a national male and female winner for all sports will be named. The group of Gatorade national winners will then attend the ESPYs.
Call Star reporter Mark Ambrogi at (317) 444-6047.