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Africans Among Us: Meet Aspiring Olympian Leul Gebresilasie of Ethiopia

translated by Brett Larner
video courtesy of Ekiden News

With Kawagoe's Tokyo Kokusai University set to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2016 its ekiden team, founded in just 2011, hopes to qualify for the Hakone Ekiden for the first time that year.  The driving force behind the team's rapid development is Ethiopian Leul Gebresilasie, 20.  Since arriving at the school's Sakado Campus in April last year, each morning he has arisen early in the team dormitory to head out for morning training.

Morning practice kicks off each day at 5:30 a.m.  Gebresilasie does light warmups together with the other 45 members of the ekiden team before leaving to run 10-15 km at a varying pace.  In his specialty distane, the 5000 m he had a best of 14:06 before coming to Japan, but not long after arriving he showed that he possesses extraordinary talent when he improved this to 13:31.52.  His coach Shuji Oshida, 51, has high expectations, saying, "His true growth is only just getting started.  He has beautiful form and excellent balance."

At the Hakone Ekiden Yosenkai qualifier in October Tokyo Kokusai University placed 17th, outside the bracket of thirteen qualifying places for Hakone, but in individual performance Gebresilasie placed 3rd just behind two Kenyans from other universities.  Coach Oshida commented, "He is adapting well to the training environment and is strongly motivated to do his best for the sake of his teammates."

At 171 cm tall, Gebresilasie weighs 56 kg.  His home is in an agricultural area 300 m from the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa.  His father has passed away, leaving his mother Golphe Haile, 60, to take care of both the family farm and raising Gebresilasie, his four brothers and two sisters by herself.  At the age of 16 he began training as a member of the Ethiopian national team, doing the serious training necessary to become a world-class long-distance runner for the first time.  Two years later came his chance to come to Japan. "My mother told me the chance to go to Japan was a great opportunity and that I should make the most of it," he says.  Once a week he and his "darling mother" talk on the phone. "For the sake of my family as well," he says with determination, "I want to accomplish big things here in Japan."

After practice Gebresilasie took us on a tour of his room in the team dormitory.  The room he shares with another team member is roughly 12 square meters.  His bed and desk are lined up neatly next to each other, will his only possessions being a computer and clothes that fit into two bags.  On the small table next to Gebresilasie's bed is a Bible written in Ethiopia's official language Amharic.  A gift from his late father, it is the belonging he holds most dear.  As a devout follower of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church he never fails to pray regularly many time each day.

After graduation Gebresilasie hopes to find a position with a Japanese corporate team and pursue a career as a jitsugyodan runner.  He does not hesitate to put his ultimate dream into words: "To run in the Olympics."


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