Feb 7, 2013
By Mark Saunders
It has only been one season, but freshman runner Futsum Zienasellassie has been busy making a name for himself as one of Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) top cross country and track runners, and as of recently, top freshman in the nation.
Flotrack.org named Zienasellassie the top freshman in the nation in fall 2012 after his 31st-place finish at the NCAA National Cross Country Championship held on Nov. 17. However, as the freshman said, running is not the only aspect of his character.
“If I knew I was getting these awards it wouldn’t be as joyful, or as surprising,” Zienasellassie said. “What I have accomplished so far, I am very blessed and honored. What I have so far is not new to a lot of people. But to me it is, because of where I came from and what I have been through.”
Zienasellassie grew up in Eritrea, a small country along the north-east coast of Africa bordering Sudan and Ethiopia, before coming to America in 2007 with his mother and younger brother. In America, he was reunited with his father who had made the move in 2003 and petitioned to the U.S. Embassy for his family to join him.
“I live like I am one of the richest kids in America,” Zienasellassie said. “I’ve been to more places than a lot of people have been. So just coming from a small village and not knowing a lot of people in America [and] the background from what I’ve come from has just made this . . . great.”
The prospect of running didn’t occur to Zienasellassie when he arrived in America. Soccer was his first choice; however, he found he was unable to play due to lack of transportation and the expensive equipment needed. Running turned out to be a viable option.
“To be honest I wasn’t really good [at soccer] back home, with running, to me, it was very helpful,” Zienasellassie said. “I found a lady who was able to give me a ride home after practices. My gym teacher, who didn’t know me, just saw me run a mile and bought me shoes. They weren’t just coaches, they were like parents too.”
Director of cross country and track and field Eric Heins said his accomplishments overall on the track are as impressive as those off the track.
“He came over to the U.S. from Africa and didn’t speak any English,” Heins said. “To see him come into his freshman year . . . and work as hard as he has with academics as well, I think, says a lot about his character too. He knows his education is just as important.”
In addition to his accomplishments during the fall at NAU, Zienasellassie has also earned numerous honors at the high school level including Gatorade National Boys’ Cross Country Runner of the Year, Nike Cross Nationals Final course-record holder, runner-up at Foot Locker Nationals his junior and senior years, NXN Midwest Regional Championship, the Foot Locker Midwest Regional Championship wins and three-straight Indiana state titles in cross country.
Despite these honors, Zienasellassie expressed a strong commitment to remaining humble and cherishing the opportunities he has received in the past.
“For me, being in all these places, it taught me to be very humble and to be myself; to be proud of whom I am,” Zienasellassie said. “My dad is a priest and he always told me that whatever I have, if I don’t hold onto it as humbly as I can, God can take it away like that from me. There are so many people who have been through what I have been through. They have accomplished so many big things [too].”
Zienasellassie’s actions, in this respect, never go unnoticed either. His teammates have come to know him as a great asset to the team and to their own pursuits on the track. Fellow freshman Nathan Weitz said he has become close friends with Zienasellassie and noted his importance as a friend and teammate.
“He always pushes us to go beyond what we think we can do,” Weitz said. “Whenever I’m in a hard work out and see him up there, he motivates me to push even more. Futsum is not exactly what you would expect. He’s really down to earth and just relaxed about everything besides practice.”
Junior Brain Shrader, who ran alongside Zienasellassie in many of the final races at the end of this past fall’s cross country season, said he commonly puts the team ahead of himself without hesitation.
“[Through last] season he has been such a great teammate,” Shrader said. “His main focus has always been about the team and he kind of puts aside all individual goals when he’s talking to us, and he just wants what’s best for the team. Whenever you have a teammate like that, it’s always going to be positive.”
Before committing to NAU, Zienasellassie was also considering Butler, Purdue, Oklahoma and Indiana as possible avenues to continue running. A factor that swayed the decision to NAU was his older brother, Bahlbi Gebreyohanns, who was already attending NAU and competing in cross country and track and field.
Zienasellassie said the opportunity to run once again alongside his older brother and have that different dynamic with a teammate was something he couldn’t pass up.
“When we were in high school we had one year of cross country and track to run together. So we always ran together,” Zienasellassie said. “We always used to communicate in the races and people would wonder what we were saying, because I could just talk to him in my own language. [We had] that for one year in high school and I didn’t get to enjoy it as much as I wanted.”
Knowing there would be an established line of great talent didn’t deter Zienasellassie. He said it made NAU that much more of an attractive choice.
“When I was coming here, I knew there would be a lot of good guys and I really didn’t mind it at all. This is a big school and a lot of good runners come here,” Zienasellassie said. “My goal was I would come in here and run well in college and, God willing, continue at the upper level.”
Heins said Futsum has made NAU that much better a choice for incoming freshman as well.
“That goes a long way with high [school] seniors that are being recruited to see somebody go somewhere and actually contribute to the team, and to contribute to a team that’s top four in the country says a lot too,” Heins said. “It’s been very beneficial to have him.”
As Zienasellassie enters into track and field season, he says his goals and ambitions are high thanks to the confidence developed by a successful cross country season.
“Just the fact that I’m training here at altitude and being here in Flagstaff, our coach told us at the national race we’d do better. It actually worked. It helped so much at the national race,” Zienasellassie said. “So just knowing that, my hopes for next year are big. Just have to work through it every day.”
His teammates and coach also predict he will do very well this spring.
“He’s kind of a freak of nature, honestly. You see him doing these workouts and these races and you kind of forget he’s a freshman,” Shrader said. “Then to realize he still has three years of eligibility in cross [country] and four in track; he’s going to do incredible things when he’s all done.”
Heins said the consistency and work ethic exhibited by Zienasellassie is a strong indicator of how well he will continue to grow and excel at NAU.
“[His season] showed me that he’s very consistent and he has some room to grow because we really didn’t pound a lot of mileage into him,” Heins said. “I believe that his future looks really bright here.”
And, of course, the presence Zienasellassie brings to the team will continue to be valued by his coach and teammates.
“He’s really been a great team guy. That’s the thing, when you have somebody with his talent level in any sport . . . you worry if they’ll be maybe too cocky or too good for this or too good for that,” Heins said. “But he’s a lot about helping his teammates, running with his teammates and doing everything that he can for the team. So he’s really been a joy to have around.”
Zienasellassie said he knows there have been many others who have gone through what he has to achieve great things. He said his drive is only matched by those individuals before him and help him focus on the possibilities to come.
“Whatever I have been through and what I have accomplished so far, that’s not only me: my family, my coaches, my friends. There are so many people who [have done] good things for me,” Zienasellassie said. “You have to live up to what you’ve accomplished in the past but you can’t live in it. When you start living in the past, you don’t live for the future.”