In some rare instances, Futsum Zeinasellassie has been known to lose. It hasn’t been too often in his 13-plus months of running high school track and cross country, but it has happened for the sophomore from North Central (Ind.) School.
On Sept. 26, that rarity occurred in his home state at the annual Culver Academies Invitational. Matched against the nation’s No. 1 harrier in Mason (Ohio) High’s Zack Wills, the African-born Zeinasellassie finished a distant second, nearly 20 seconds behind his rival. Wills took the hardware, uncorking the fastest time in the country so far this year for 5,000 meters with a winning effort of 14:54.80.
“I really didn’t know the guy before; didn’t know what he looked like,” said Zeinasellassie, who still finished with an impressive runner-up time of 15:14. “At about 300 meters I saw this guy ahead of me and just thought he was going out too fast. I didn’t know it was him, but I should have known. He just ran away after 300 meters. He just ran away.
”Prior to the Culver meet, there haven’t been too many competitors that have run away from Zeinasellassie. In fact, since a stunning seventh-place finish at the Foot Locker Cross-Country Nationals last December, that grand total would be zero.
To put it into better perspective - it’s a 10-month span without a single defeat.“He just has this inner drive,” said head coach Rick Stover. “He has a tremendous work ethic that, combined with a lot of talent, makes him special.”
As he begins his second year at North Central, the 17-year-old Zeinasellassie (Photo, left, by Margot Kelly, AZtrackXC.com) will have a tough act to follow. It’s an act that he created all by his lonesome during an amazing freshman season that was capped with a victory in the 3,200-meter run at the IHSAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships this past June.
His ninth-grade campaign on the cross-country paths is one that particularly stands out. Virtually unbeatable, save for a footwear malfunction that possibly denied him a state title, Zeinasellassie finished off his fall season with his performance at the Foot Locker Nationals in San Diego where he clocked a time of 15:40 for the five-kilometer distance at Balboa Park. With his effort, he became the first freshman boy in the 30-year history of the race to place among the top 10.
“Based on what he was running, we felt definitely top 10,” admits Stover. “He could have probably done better but he wasn’t used to the (down hills) at San Diego.”
Zeinasellassie, a native of Eritrea, came over to the United States when he was in seventh grade, reuniting with his dad, who is a pastor in an Orthodox church. He came with thoughts of becoming a star soccer player, a sport he still enjoys and plays.
It was his physical education teacher in eighth grade that convinced him that running may be in his future.
“I was running the mile in gym class with basketball shorts and sneakers and ran like 5:05-5:10,” he recalled. “After I did that, my gym teacher told me I should be running cross country.”
After a moderately successful middle school season, Zeinasellassie made an impact almost immediately when he entered the high-school ranks. Part of the reason was the fact that his older brother, Bahlebi, another talented runner, came over to the states the summer of that year.
“He helped me a lot,” Zeinasellassie said. “He would train with me on long distances. Before, I was mainly running on the track and doing speed workouts. It was great having him here.”
Zeinasellassie went undefeated for most of his inaugural high school season on the trails. His only loss came at the state meet where he finished second and a mere five seconds behind Drew Shields, a senior from Fishers who took gold with his time of 15:20.3. Zeinasellassie was timed in 15:25.4.
The win marked the first time in four head-to-head meetings during the fall that Shields was able to finish ahead of the North Central runner. He did have somewhat of an advantage, though.
Just about 400 meters into the race, Zeinasellassie lost his shoe and had to stop to re-tie it, losing an estimated 10 seconds. By the time he laced his shoes, he was in dead last in the field of 310. He spent a good part of the early stages of the race making his way back to the front.
“If that didn’t happen,” Stover said. “He would have won the race.”
Zeinasellassie did put the appropriate end to his breakthrough year by capturing the 3,200 meters at the outdoor states. Sizzling the last 400 in 65 seconds, he broke the tape in 9:11.97, the nation’s fastest time posted by a freshman.
Although he realized his potential early, Zeinasellassie (Photo, right, by Don Rich, PennTrackXC.com) wasn’t expecting everything to come so fast.
“It was really shocking,” he said. “I remember watching a couple of races before I went to high school and just thought they were running really fast. I didn’t think I could go that fast. It was real shocking. I wasn’t expecting it.”
As the cross-country season starts to take shape, the focus for one of Indiana’s finest prep distance stars is to continue to finish ahead of his rivals and win the state title that bad luck possibly took away from him in 2008-09. This year’s championship meet will take place on Oct. 31 at the Wabash Valley Sports Center in Terre Haute.
The next step is a top finish at the Nike Cross-Country Nationals in Portland. Ore. (Dec. 5) or the Foot Locker Nationals in San Diego (Dec. 12).
Or a double dose, perhaps?
“We’ll try to decide what’s best - one or both,” Stover said. “Whatever is best for him.”
Zeinasellassie wouldn’t mind having a little company on his possible trip out west.
“My goal is for my team to do real well. We’ll see what happens after the states,” he said. “If our team does real well, I’d like us to try and qualify for Nike. I would like to go as a team. It would be fun for me. I’m not really into doing things just individually. I still have two more years left to do that.”