On November 17th, hundreds of high school runners from across five southwestern states will gather in the heart of the Sonoran Desert to compete in a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) race that only a select few qualified for. Among this elite group of cross-country competitors will be Yasin Sado, an 11th grade student at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School.
But long before he qualified for the event, before he took first place in regional and league meets, and before he even started running cross country, Sado hadn’t given much thought to the sport. Despite having emigrated with his family in 2015 from Ethiopia, a country that has long been synonymous with dominance in distance running events, Sado didn’t go out for the cross country team at the first school he attended in Colorado because nobody seemed to want to help him.
When he came to KIPP in 2016, Sado joined the soccer team, though word of his speed traveled quickly, and soon Mr. Bandel, the cross country coach, took note of the student’s athleticism. Bandel asked Sado to run on the school’s fundraising team for the Colfax Marathon, and after seeing his performance, he asked Sado if he’d consider joining the cross country team. Sado, who wasn’t ready to abandon the team camaraderie of soccer, decided to take on the challenge of competing in both soccer and cross country.
“It was not easy to do both sports,” says Sado. “There is a lot of homework and high expectations in school, so it was tough to find the time to make it all work and still get my homework done.”
Despite his natural talent, Sado’s first cross country meet wasn’t exactly a breakout success. Far from it, in fact. Sado bolted out to an early lead, but later became so winded he dropped from the race without ever crossing the finish line. Yet instead of discouraging him, that race pushed him to train harder and work with coach Bandel on strategy.
It also helped that Sado had a teammate and competitor in practice to help inspire him: his brother Ahmed—a year older than Yasin—was also on the team. Yasin says he stayed focused on others and didn’t mind when his brother finished ahead of him, and Coach Bandel agreed that there was nothing but support and encouragement between the two.
In his second race, Sado finished in tenth place, earning him a medal, and he replicated a tenth place finish in his third race. Soon he was climbing his way up in the rankings and earning a place on the podium. This past season, Sado took first place in seven of the ten races he participated in—including winning regional and league competitions.
With his success came a qualification to the Nike Cross Southwest Regional meet in Casa Grande, Arizona, where he will compete against elite peers in front of scouts from collegiate cross country programs.
Sado, who clocked a 4:25 mile time last spring, will fly with Ms. Lyman, the team’s assistant coach, to the meet and stay in Arizona, thanks to funds from the KIPP Through College program and his school’s athletic department.
When asked about his goals for the race, Sado’s response belies the extremely competitive instinct his coach sees in him each week.
“I hope to run fast,” he says demurely. “Mostly it’s fun to know I’ll be running against the best.”