By David Krider
When Futsum Zienasellassie came to the United States as a 14-year-old from Eritrea, he had at least two illusions.
He told MaxPreps that his early thoughts were, “America is heaven. You have an opportunity to be whatever you want to be. Oh, man, there’s a lot of money in America. I’m going to be rich. That got me excited. I told all my friends I would buy them bicycles.”
Soon, however, he realized that his family was not going to find great wealth in America (his father is a priest for the Christian Orthodox Church in the Indianapolis area) and that spoiled his other dream – to become a great soccer player.
He explained, “When I played with my friends, I used to be the last one they chose. I thought I would have a good chance in soccer (in America).”
Two things got in his way: Lack of money to buy soccer equipment. And distance running, a sport he never had tried in his native east African country.
Zienasellassie was doing running exercises in an eighth grade physical education class when the teacher, James Bell, saw his great potential while running rings around the other athletes, even while wearing blue jeans and high-top basketball shoes. He bought the youngster some running shoes and reported what he had seen to the varsity track and cross country coaches at North Central (Indianapolis)
Bell specialized in throwing events, but he didn’t have to be a genius to recognize great running talent.
Varsity cross country coach Rick Stover noted, “Obviously, he was very raw, but very smooth. We had no idea how good (he would become).”
The rest is history, because Zienasellassie has developed into one of the finest high school distance runners in American history and has never even had time to try out for prep soccer.
Last fall the 5-foot-8, 140-pound senior was named the Gatorade National Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year after winning the Nike Cross Nationals and losing the Foot Locker Nationals in a photo finish. He won the Indiana cross country state title three times and will be seeking his fourth-consecutive 3,200-meter crown this spring in track.
Zienasellassie’s career really began to take off when his older brother, Bahlbi, joined the family and they began strenuous workouts the summer after his eighth grade year.
“I knew the sport well,” he pointed out, “because my brother was a runner. On days he’d run out of town, I’d go with him to hold his clothes. I’d just sit there and wait on him for an hour. When he came in the summer, that transformed me to the runner I am in terms of running when it’s cold outside and when I’m tired.”
Thanks to his brother’s motivation, Zienasellassie became an immediate cross country star as a freshman at North Central. He lost his first race to senior Drew Shields of Fishers (Ind.) and his last race to the same runner at the state meet. In between, though, he was undefeated and beat Shields on three other occasions.
If someone had not stepped on his heel, Zienasellassie probably would have won four consecutive state cross country meets, because it cost him close to 15 seconds to take his shoe off, retie it and catch up with Shields. He finished second in 15 minutes, 25 seconds, just 10 seconds behind the champion.
Zienasellassie recalled, “All the pressure that I might be the first freshman to win the state got to my head. I caught up, but he out-kicked me. It just wasn’t my day.”
Later that fall he placed seventh during the Foot Locker Nationals in San Diego, the highest finish ever for a freshman.
During the track season, he won the state championship in the 3,200 with a school-record time of 9:11.97. He also captured the Nike Outdoor Nationals freshman mile in Greensboro, N.C., with a 4:23 effort despite 100-degree heat.
Some time during his rookie year, Zienasellassie acquired the nickname “Bigfoot.” It turned out to be quite prophetic – even though he wears only size 10 shoes – because everywhere he has gone he has left a major imprint.
As a sophomore, Zienasellassie was not pushed while winning his first state cross country crown with a 15:51 clocking on a windy day. His best 5,000 time that year, however, was a much-faster 15:11 at the semistate meet.
He was not able to enter the Foot Locker eliminations that year because they came too close to his final exams and his parents wanted him to concentrate on his academics. Because he attended summer school several times, he also was not allowed to compete in major out-of-school events as a sophomore and junior.
“He had to play a lot of catch-up with the language barrier,” Stover pointed out. “He definitely is a hard worker and worked for everything he’s gotten. He’s definitely busted his tail to make everything happen.”
Zienasellassie, who speaks excellent English today, revealed that when he first came to the country, he basically knew just two phrases: “Hi, how are you?” and “Can I please use your phone?”
During his junior year he won his second-consecutive state cross country title (15:16) and finished second in the Foot Locker Nationals to Lukas Verzbicas, who was unbeaten as a junior and graduated that spring. Zienasellassie calls Verzbicas “a phenomenal runner who has a great stride.”
He explained that during the regional, he allowed Verzbicas to get a big lead in the first mile and although he closed the gap greatly, he lost by 3 seconds with a personal-record time of 14:47. During the Foot Locker finals, he tried to stay with Verzbicas from the beginning, but lost by 10 seconds.
In track he won the state 3,200 for the third year in a row with a clocking of 8:56.73 and also won the Midwest Gala 2-mile in 9 minutes flat.
Zienasellassie had a sensational senior year in cross country. He had a best time of 14:36 at the Flash Rock Invitational. He won his third-consecutive state title, setting records for best course time (14:48.8) and widest margin of victory (44 seconds).
Then he pulled an ironman stunt by running two regional and two national finals, all necessitating tiring long-distance travel.
He not only won his first national title – the Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Ore. – but he did it in with a course record time (15:02.41) and largest margin of victory (24 seconds).
Referring to the milestone, Zienasellassie related, “(Coach Stover) is the only guy who knows how hard I’ve worked. Even my parents don’t know, because they don’t see me (in practice).”
The very next weekend he came back with a second-place finish during the Foot Locker Nationals in one of the greatest cross country races in prep history. Zienasellassie was clocked in 14:53, a second behind winner Edward Cheserek, a junior from St. Benedict’s Prep (Newark, N.J.).
Stover called it “probably the most competitive race I’ve ever witnessed – absolutely awesome. It was a great battle and a shame someone had to lose. For a while everybody called it 1A and 1B (because the finish was so close).”
Zienasellassie confessed that during Foot Locker practice sessions, “I really didn’t want to talk to Edward and (let him) measure me. On a Thursday run he introduced himself and we just clicked after that. We just hung out almost every second at Foot Locker.”
After Cheserek had given his acceptance speech, he asked Zienasellassie to say a few words.
“Futsum kind of took over the crowd,” Stover recalled. “He is so genuine and humble. (Media members said) what a breath of fresh air he was.”
The Indiana teenager commented, “He (Cheserek) reminds me of myself. I don’t want to brag, but I think my accent is better,” he laughed. “I know how fast he is and how humble.”
Zienasellassie challenged Cheserek during the interview when he said, “I’m not disappointed, but I still want my revenge.”
That could come on June 9 when they tangle again during the adidas Dream Mile in New York City. However, Zienasellassie believes time will be more important than winning and he hopes for at least 4:04.
Meanwhile, Zienasellassie already has achieved another milestone in track by winning the Arcadia Invitational 3,200 in 8:47.75, which broke a 37-year-old Indiana record held by Hammond’s Rudy Chapa. He still is chasing Chapa’s state-meet record of 8:55.10.
When he shoots for Chapa’s state-meet record, he also will be seeking his fourth-consecutive state 3,200 crown.
“That gets me more nervous than I’ve ever been, because no one has won four 3,200s. It’s scary,” he said.
In the meantime, he will concentrate on surpassing Stover on the North Central leaderboard, which lists the Top 10 in each event. He wants to beat his coach’s best time in the 800 and he also would like to beat the school mile record.
He carries a 2.8 GPA and plans to join his brother at Northern Arizona University. He also considered Oklahoma State, Indiana, Purdue and Butler.
Though he will compete in both sports, he loves cross country the most. His reasoning is unique: “In cross country you can beat all of them (a large field in every race). No. 2, when you run as hard as you can and look back and no one is there, it gives you a lot of satisfaction.”
Because of his year-round running, he has little time for hobbies or outside activities. His biggest love is his church where he reads Bible verses and sings in the choir.
“We probably have the happiest church in the state,” he said of the small congregation. “My priorities are God is No. 1, then my friends and family, education and running (in that order).”
Because of his national Gatorade award, he is eligible for the red-carpet ESPY treatment later this spring.
“That sums up the whole thing (his career),” Zienasellassie said of the unexpected Gatorade honor. “I still don’t believe it. I try not to think about it (the ESPY trip).”
Zienasellassie admits he misses his friends and particularly his grandmother in Eritrea, but he has not seen his home country since coming to the United States six years ago. Though he is not yet a U.S. citizen, he indicated he would love to run for his adopted country some day in the Olympic Games.
He explained, “I love my country, but we’re talking about being here and (starting) running here. In my eye it wouldn’t be any problem (to choose the U.S. over Eritrea).”
Everyone agrees that his future is bright. Head track coach Kenny Franklin noted, “I haven’t seen another athlete like him. He definitely is a kid who has a different take on athletics as a whole. I definitely think he has potential to go 8:30 (in the 3,200).”
Byron Simpson, who has worked with Zienasellassie for four years in track and cross country, predicts, “He’s got so much more in him than he has shown.”
North Central Athletic Director Chuck Jones believes that the young star is going to leave a great legacy at the school due not only to his athletic triumphs, but because of his attitude and personality.
Admitting to be a big fan, he said, “I enjoyed just watching him. Winning all these national awards has been a humbling experience. He’s just a humble kid and all the honors are well deserved.”
Some day look for Zienasellassie to also fulfill an early goal by purchasing new bicycles for all of his friends in Eritrea.