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 True cross country fans know our sport is more of a team event than most outsiders realize, yet there are plenty of individual standouts as well.  So, while honoring the tradition we have started at DyeStat with Interval Sessions, which introduced you to the top individuals in both track and XC, we launch Fall 2009 with "Star Squad Spotlight," giving you a chance to get to know not just the top individual runners in the country, but also the best teams.

 star | futsum zeinasellassie
by SteveU, DyeStat Senior Editor

If Futsum Zeinasellassie wins the Foot Locker Finals in December – and being the meet’s highest returnee on the boys side, it’s certainly a possibility – it’s hard to imagine he could be much more satisfied that he was last weekend in Terre Haute.  That’s when and where the North Central IN soph won his first Indiana XC title.

No, it wasn’t a big surprise.  In fact, it was a surprise when Futsum appeared in the back of the pack after his shoe nearly came off in last year’s state meet, and that he actually made it all the way up to 2nd, behind Drew Shields, and still had a chance to win at the end of that race.  It was a surprise that he finished 7th place at the Foot Locker Finals last fall, the best ever by a 9th-grader – and that even then he trailed Shields, who was 4th in a banner day for the Hoosier State.  Those were all surprising things. 

But after his dominating performance in the semi-state meet, it was no surprise that the Eritrean native took the state title decisively.  It was just extremely gratifying after last year’s misfortune, adding a missing and essential piece to an amazing career that still isn’t half over.  Futsum can now turn his attention fully to getting back to San Diego (he says he’s picked that quest over NXN) and seeing if he can become the meet’s first boys’ sophomore champion.  It’s something he, his family, or Coach Rick Stover never imagined when his prep career began last fall.

1) Congratulations on your state championship run last week.  I’d heard that you really took control the second half of the race.  Please tell us about the course and conditions, how the race went for you, and about how it feels to finally get that state title you probably felt you could have won last year.

It feels great to win the state title and for our team to be 3rd.  The course was very soggy and muddy, so we mapped out the best path to run on.  We decided that the best thing for this race would be to stay in the pack for the first part of the race.  Coach told me to make my move halfway, at the 2.5K mark.  It was an amazing feeling to win.

2) I understand that last year you lost your shoe early in the race and had to try and catch everyone the rest of the way before finishing second. Can you tell us in detail about how that race unfolded?  I’ve read that you’ve said “people don’t believe that.”  How has the last year been difficult since that happened and how much were you motivated by the memory of that this year?

Last year, at about 500 meters, someone stepped on the back of my shoe.  It was half on and half off, so I had to stop and fix it.  By then, I was pretty far behind.  I felt that I had to catch up quickly to have a chance.  By the 1600, I had caught back up with the leaders.  Drew and I pulled away with about 1K to go.  We had a great race at the end.  Losing that race motivated me for this year. I did feel that I had to prove myself. 

3) Please talk about this year so far in general.  I think because some of your times were slower earlier this year, people thought you might not be the same runner, but I’ve recently read that you really just “ran for victory” in some of those races.  But then there was also the loss in the Culver meet to Zach Wills.  What did you learn from that race, and otherwise, what has been the plan all along this season in the rest of them leading up to state?

The first part of the season we worked pretty hard.  The key was to win; it did not matter if by 5 seconds or 25.  I tried to relax in races and really work the last 800 or 1000 – until our regional and state meets. 

At Culver, I did not expect it to go out that hard.  I did not think that was Zack.  I thought that was someone else that was going out crazy.  By the time I realized what happened, Zach had too big of a lead and I could not catch him.  I learned a lot from that race.  I have made sure that I know who my competition is, what they look like and not to let the leaders get out of contact.   

4) I’ve read that Coach Stover ran for the state title team at North Central 40 years ago and while he would have loved to see it happen again, he was very proud to see you and two of your teammates make the top 25.  Can you talk about how much the team, and your teammates mean to you?  And tell us about your relationship with Coach Stover and what he’s meant to the team?

My teammates are the best.  Even more than me winning, we wanted to win the team title.  That was our goal.  We were a little disappointed that we finished 3rd, but we are still proud.  Coach is more than just Coach to me and the team.  When my father brought me to see Coach Stover when I was in 8th grade, he asked him if he would take care of me as if I was one of his own children from day one until I finish high school.  Coach said that this is what our team was all about.  He has done that, and I can’t thank him enough.  Coach and I have a great relationship.   

5) What were the family circumstances that led to you and your family coming here from Eritrea and what have been some of the biggest challenges over the last three years in adapting to the United States and its culture?  What are some of people’s biggest misconceptions about you, your background, or what it’s like in your home country?

My father came first to teach about God to the Eritrean family in Indianapolis and to see about a better life for our family.  My mother, younger brother and I came about 3 years later. It was a big change - but we are doing alright.  My older brother Bahlbi came about a year ago.  He was a big help to me. 

One of the biggest misconceptions is that people always say we are too old (Futsum was born 12/16/1992).  That is ridiculous.

6) I understand you came to the U.S. when you were in 7th grade and also that your passion was soccer.  How did you become attracted to cross-country and track over soccer – or futbol?  Do you miss playing futbol at all?

Yes, soccer was the sport.  I still play at home sometimes.  But cross country is big for me now.  In middle school PE class we ran the mile and I did okay.  The PE teacher, Mr. Bell, said that I should run cross country.  So in 8th grade, I joined the team and then ran track.  I still in enjoy playing soccer, but I try to be careful.  I do not want to get hurt.   

7) From what I’ve read, you didn’t have dramatic success when you first started running in middle school, but that it really all came together fast last fall.  That must have been an overwhelming and surprising experience at times, getting to the highest level in the sport so fast. Were there some lessons you learned last year that have made you an “older, wiser” runner this year?

When Bahlbi joined us the summer between middle school and high school, we trained pretty hard at home and at our conditioning practice at school.  At that time, I did not think that I would be able to run with some of the guys that I was running with.  It seemed crazy at first, but things got better every meet.  Bahlbi helped me a lot.  Last year was amazing and I did learn a lot about racing and training.   

8) When you aren’t training or racing, what are some things you enjoy and are best known for?  What are your best and favorite subjects in school? What do you enjoy in terms of music, things to do with your friends, etc?

When not training, I like to watch movies, sit and talk with friends and sleep.  My favorite subject is math. I like to work with numbers. Bob Marley, I love his music. 

9) Finally, what are your goals like for the rest of the year?  Are you and your team thinking of running the Nike Midwest meet in Terre Haute? Is going for Foot Locker a definite again, or are you going to see how Nike turns out first?

Now that the state meet is over, my goal is to make the Foot Locker Finals again this year.  Our team had some sickness toward the end of the season, so we will not be able to go to the Nike meet.  We have now made our main focus to take a few guys up to the Foot Locker Regionals to see what we can do there.  I really enjoyed that meet last year.

Photos (from top): Foot Locker '08 (by John Nepolitan), Futsum with Coach Stover (submitted by Coach Stover), Futsum and father (submitted by Coach Stover)