LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Parents of Notre Dame miler Yared Nuguse have not told him their own horror stories. He can read for himself about what is happening in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
Besides, Alem Nuguse considers himself lucky. During a six-month imprisonment, Yared’s father said, he was not tortured. And he made it out, first to Sudan, then to America.
Everything was good in America. No one could have projected it would be thisgood. The refugee’s son, Yared, will represent America on the biggest stage: the Olympic Games.
“My family is a huge part of who I am,” Yared said. “I wouldn’t be hard-working in school or running if I didn’t have that strong force within me to pursue that.”
The runner described as a “sweet kid” by his high school coach is also unafraid “to go to the pain zone.” There might be faster 1,500-meter runners in Tokyo. There will be none more resolute.
“We are fighters. Tigrayan people are fighters,” Nuguse’s father said.
Father was a political refugee
Yared Nuguse did not set out to be a runner or activist. Running and activism found him.
He set out to be a scholar. His immigrant parents, who own a liquor store, pushed education to all six children: Fastina, 32; Tegest, 31; Senait, 24; Yared, 22; twins Zebeeb and Alula, 20.
For the past month, Nuguse has balanced training withhis load of four summer classes at Notre Dame: principles in management, statistics in business, financial accounting, bridge to success. He has already graduated in a pre-dentistry program, with a major in biochemistry and minor in Italian.
Although Ethiopia has produced some of the greatest distance runners — Abebe Bikila, Miruts Yifter, Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele—Nuguse did not know that heritage. He was born in Washington, D.C., lived in Maryland for a few years and in Bloomington, Ind., for a year. Before he was in third grade, the family relocated to Louisville. The USA is home.
The family once visited Ethiopia for two months, and the children “didn’t like it at all,” Alem Nuguse said.
'I'm still taking it all in': Manual grad Yared Nuguse reflects on qualifying for Olympics
Ethiopia is Africa’s second-most populous country and one of the world’s oldest, dating to Biblical times. It has endured decades of strife and was controlled by a socialist government in the 1980s, when Alem Nuguse said he was targeted for political reasons. Until then, he was a math and English teacher.
“If you have different kind of ideas,” he said, “they just throw you into prison.”
After he was released, he said, he walked with three other refugees to Port Sudan. They traveled at night, with an armed guide, more scared of returning to prison than of wild beasts.
The father said he lived at a friend’s home rather than a refugee camp and resumed teaching. He was granted political asylum during the Ronald Reagan administration, boarded a flight to Washington and settled in Arlington, Va. He took a clerical job with Aetna Insurance and later was employed by the post office. He found a community of other Orthodox Christians from Ethiopia.
Alem met his wife, Mana, in Arlington. She, too, is from Tigray but did not meet her husband until after both emigrated.
In Ethiopia, a feud between Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) escalated into civil war last November. The fighting has killed thousands, forced about 1.7 million to flee, fueled famine and led to atrocities.
Yared Nuguse belongs to a Tigrayan young people’s group that has organized demonstrations to raise awareness of the crisis and raise money for victims. He has participated in protests and shared resources through Instagram to call for action.
“It’s genocide at this point,” he said. “Things are getting better, but it’s sad to see it all happening.”
He said he can compartmentalize , but he cannot help but think about relatives in Ethiopia. His father tried to put him at ease during the U.S. Olympic Trials at Eugene, Ore.
“Yared, you just don’t need to know anything about Tigray right now. Concentrate on your races,” his father told him.
Nuguse has not decided whether to bring attention to the cause if he makes it to an Olympic podium.
“It’s a very important issue,” he said. “I feel people should know.”
He's Ethiopian, and he's Irish
Sports were not central to the Nuguses’ lives. The parents worried it would interfere with their children’s studies.
When Yared was a freshman at duPont Manual, a magnet high school in Louisville, a physical education teacher noticed this skinny teen who seemed to have talent.
The teacher notified track coach Tim Holman. The coach went room to room in search of the student and found him, interrupting a class. Holman asked what activity he did at school:
“Science fair, sir.”
No, the coach said. What sport?
Coach’s response: “I expect you out on Monday.”
Nuguse showed up for track practice Monday. He loved it immediately.
“Just going out running was so much fun to me,” he said.
His first race was indoors on the 290-meter oval at the University of Kentucky. He asked the coach how he was supposed to race 3,200 meters. Holman told him if he ran each of 11 laps in one minute, that would be a good time.
“That math just clicked with him,” Holman said.
More:Former Manual cross country star Yared Nuguse qualifies for the Olympics
Nuguse lost a shoe during the race but finished in under 11 minutes. Hmm, Holman thought. That was promising.
Nuguse is self-deprecating about his initial lack of running knowledge. When someone mentioned relays —4x400, 4x800 —he wondered “four what?” He did not know what a 5K was. In cross-country, he wondered: Where is the track?
“I was just so clueless,” he said.
He kept improving, even on duPont Manual’s modest regimen. He ran 20 miles a week as a freshman, no more than 35 as a senior.
He was humble and coachable, and that’s not all. He was fearless.
“He goes to the wall. That’s all he knows,” Holman said.
As a junior, Nuguse won a state title in the 1,600 in 4:12.10, a time that should have lured college recruiters. Cincinnati and Louisville showed interest, and few others. It was “odd,” as Notre Dame coach Sean Carlson said.
Negligent, as it turned out.
After Nuguse’s junior year, he and his mother visited Notre Dame’s campus, liked the academic rigor and the runners on the team. He was Ethiopian, and he became Irish.
“I’m happy we stumbled upon him,” Carlson said.
As a senior, Nuguse won a state title in cross-country, then an ironman quadruple in track: 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meters, plus 4x800 relay. That helped duPont Manual finish fourth in Kentucky.
“Yared is the ultimate team guy,” Holman said. “He will always put the team above what he wants personally.”
In May 2017, Nuguse ran a 4:06.30 mile, a state record and 16th-fastest in the nation that year. Later, in the adidas Dream Mile at Boston, he was sixth in 4:07.28.
Maybe we should have seen it coming.
As a Notre Dame freshman, Nuguse ran a 1,600-meter anchor leg in 3:56.90 (a 3:58.3 mile) for a team that finished second in the distance medley relay at indoor NCAAs. Among those he outkicked was Stanford’s Grant Fisher, a 2021 Olympian at 5,000 meters. That was an aha moment.
“All right,” Carlson told himself. “This is going to be a really fun next couple of years.”
Nuguse wore his first Team USA singlet in 2018. After a U.S. junior title in the 1,500 meters, he was eliminated in heats of the under-20 World Championships at Tampere, Finland. Still, that experience was a revelation.
“I realized there might be more here than I’m thinking,” he said.
That was manifested the next year when he anchored Notre Dame to an NCAA victory in the distance medley, then won the NCAA outdoor 1,500 by three-thousandthsof a second over Michigan State’s Justine Kiprotich.
Also manifested is how Nuguse preserves perspective. Before that 1,500 at Austin, Texas, where the temperature was 100 degrees, he was asleep in a car with the air conditioning on. Carlson had to awaken him to warm up.
Nuguse was back at indoor NCAAs in 2020 before the pandemic canceled the meet. It felt “awful,” he said, even though there was nothing to be done about it.
It was difficult to keep training for a season that never was. Outdoor NCAAs were canceled, too. Losing two national meets influenced his decision to return to Notre Dame this fall for a fifth college season.
Fittingly, his decision to put team first contributed to his own breakout year.
Instead of winter track, he trained for cross-country, in which the Irish finished second at March’s delayed NCAAs. He was 11th through 5,000 meters and held on for 23rd on the 10,000-meter course at Stillwater, Oklahoma. Notre Dame coach Matt Sparks said he had never seen Nuguse “hurt that bad before.”
On the track, in a May 7 race at Eugene, Oregon, Nuguse upstaged Oregon’s Cooper Teare and Cole Hocker to win a 1,500 in 3:35.96. Nuguse did not run 3:35 to qualify for the Olympics but did so six days later, in 3:34.68, in prelims of the Atlantic Coast Conference meet.
It was “calculated,” Carlson said, and necessary. If Nuguse had not done so, he would not be going to Tokyo.
“We kind of pulled the trigger on it,” the coach said, “and it obviously worked out.”
Closing spurts by Hocker, a 20-year-old from Indianapolis, overtook Nuguse at NCAAs and Olympic Trials.
Yet that should not obscure how potent Nuguse is, too. For instance, he ran the closing 800 meters in 1:49.27 at NCAAs, in which Hocker’s last 800 was 1:48.87. Nuguse was third at the trials behind Hocker and defending Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz.
“I didn’t lose because, oh, I got boxed in or should have done this or that,” Nuguse said. “I did really have smart races and had fun doing them.”
It has been suggested Hocker, Nuguse and 18-year-old Hobbs Kessler can create the kind of middle-distance rivalry that Great Britain’s Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram did in the 1980s.
Watch parties set in Louisville
Notre Dame has a running legacy, too. Rick Wohlhuter (1976 bronze) and Alex Wilson (1932 silver) won Olympic medals in the 800 meters, and wGreg Rice might have in the 5,000 if World War II had not canceled the 1940 and 1944 Olympics.
No one at Notre Dame could have envisioned Nuguse'sseason lasting this long. On the other hand, Carlson said workouts have been designed for such an eventuality.
Nuguse has not raced since June 27 at Eugene. That has allowed for a month of uninterrupted training ahead offirst-round heats.
Watch parties at duPont Manual have been organized for his races: 8:05 p.m. Aug. 2 (Aug. 3 in Tokyo), 7 a.m. on Aug. 5 and 7:40 a.m. on Aug. 7.
Nuguse’s goal is to be among the 12 finalists. If he gets that far, he said, “You just go for it.”
As far as Carlson is concerned, the collegian will not be overmatched against pros with more experience, longer resumes or faster times.
“A lot of people think about talent like it’s a physical thing,” the Notre Dame coach said. “He’s got talent in how he can react to situations or pressure that he feels. His ability to stay so level-headed, regardless of the situation, it’s been pretty incredible to see.”
Nuguse has grown away from the track, too.
Holman could not get Nuguse to speak five words in two years, but the runner spent 45 minutes addressing the duPont Manual team. The message: Don’t let self-worth be defined by your running or intellectual ability, but by how you treat others.
Such a communal spirit has long been the culture of the Tigrayans. So has the hard work.
So has the fight.
Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.