These days, Harun Abda can smile when he runs. The passion, the determination, the impetus are all still there.
But after fleeing political turmoil and oppression in his native Ethiopia and bounding into the unknown as a refugee, the senior Gophers track star now runs simply because he wants to.
With the breeze at his back and a contagious smile painted across his face, Abda heads into the Big Ten Championships — which start Friday in Columbus, Ohio — looking to cap an impressive college career that he hopes will take him to the next level.
To get to that point, Abda has exerted an inordinate amount of focus and grit both toward his sport and his foremost goal — graduating, which he is expected to do later this month. But through the grind, one impression strikes Abda’s coaches and teammates: He’s having a ball.
“I’ve seen a lot and I went through a lot,” said Abda, who became a United States citizen last year. “Sometimes [people] ask me, ‘Why are you still smiling?’ … But when you go through all this and now — you have nothing to fear.”
There’s plenty to elicit a grin now for Abda, a six-time All-America and three-time Big Ten indoor champion in the 600 meters, a competitive relay runner and one of the best 800 runners in the country. His coaches say he has a chance at the Olympics, which is the next goal for the versatile runner who ran the 800 at the Olympic trials last year.
“He’s fast,” Gophers coach Steve Plasencia said matter-of-factly. “He’s not afraid to challenge himself. … He runs best when he runs from the front, which means you have to go out with a little bit of reckless abandon. He’s not afraid to take the lead, which takes some courage.”
It’s a character trait forcibly instilled a decade ago, when upturned lips didn’t come so easy.
Abda grew up in a tiny town called Shashamane in central Ethiopia, where his father was the equivalent of the mayor. When the opposing political party took control, his father was imprisoned. When he broke free seven years later, his father made his way to Kenya, where he met with Abda’s uncle, sending him back to warn the family and urge them to follow.
“They were basically running for their lives,” Gophers assistant coach Paul Thornton said. “He tells stories about being on a bus and traveling through Kenya and there would be checkpoints in which they would have to scurry off the bus and hide in a ditch.”
The family of 17 — Abda, his mother and 15 of his 16 siblings (the eldest, Salahadin, had fled the country immediately following his father’s escape) — would jump off at every checkpoint, walking wide circles around the barriers and meeting up with the buses on the other side, Abda said.
After three years as refugees in Kenya — unable to go outside for fear of being caught — the family received word of Salahadin winding up in Minnesota and, with the help of the United Nations, joined him.
“We came in April and it was nice that year,” Abda said. “We were like, ‘Oh man, this is like a dream country.’ Everything is green, the sun is out. We were like, ‘Wow!’ And then we got to winter.”
Abda, who in ninth grade was unable to speak a word of English, took up track as a sophomore at Fridley at a neighbor’s urging. It seemed he was a natural. Abda went to the state meet his first season running, and won the Class 2A state title in the 800 as a senior, catching the eye of Plasencia and Thornton, who works most closely with him now.
Still, the multifaceted Abda has taken the Gophers a little by surprise. He improved his 400 meters time from 49 seconds to a little more than 45 seconds, while racking up accolades individually and in the 4x800 relay, which the Gophers won for the third consecutive year at the Drake Relays two weeks ago.
“You knew he was going to be good, but at what level is he going to be good was yet to be seen,” Thornton said. “A lot of guys can run a 400, 600 and 800, but … it’s not like he’s just out there running it. He’s running it better than anybody else has ever done. That’s impressive.”
Thornton said Abda has room left for improvement, which makes him believe the 23-year-old is capable of competing in the Olympics. But Abda has learned to enjoy the process in a country he has accepted as his own, and that has kept him smiling day after day and running just for fun.
“It was a long journey here for me,” he said. “When we were [in Africa], every day was a fear. Now I have nothing to fear. I can raise my voice and be heard. I can do anything I want. I can be whatever I want to. So being in this country makes me happy every day.”