After playing tennis as a freshman at Silver Spring’s Northwood High School Michael Abebe decided to give another sport a try. Last summer, in August, he met up with members of the cross country team for an informal practice: a four-mile, 30-minute run at the Sligo Creek Trail.
It was a lot harder than he had anticipated, he said.
“I really just couldn’t talk for a long time. I was really winded, trying to catch my breath, falling all over the place,” Abebe said.
A year later, Abebe found himself again winded and catching his breath after a long run. But this time it wasn’t with his teammates on a Silver Spring trail; it was with some of the top runners in the United States, on a track, in a Texas stadium, after he placed first in the boys 15-16 division 3,000-meter run (9 minutes, 0.44 seconds) in the 2014 USATF National Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships.
Abebe, an Ethiopia native, has become one of the nation’s top distance runners despite having only one year of competitive running experience under his belt.
“He started the season on the junior varsity team and by the end of the season he was our No. 1,” assistant cross country coach Giovanni Reumante said. “... It’s very rare. I think it’s in the genetics with him, even though he said his parents didn’t run.”
Running has become a habit for Abebe, who moved with his family to Silver Spring when he was five.
“I just wanted to make sure I was in shape before the season started,” he said. “... I didn’t know it then but I was really liking the sport because it gave me time to think and just relax really.”
He didn’t stand out at first, Reumante said.
“He just seemed like another one of the guys that came out to run,” Reumante said.
But then coaches started challenging the rookie runner.
“[Reumante] saw me run during the practices and said he thought I could be faster so he started pushing me to run with the front of the pack, with the varsity group more, and all the sudden I started getting better and my times started dropping,” Abebe said.
Abebe’s times improved dramatically. In September he ran 5,000 meters in 20:59. In November, at the 3A state cross country championship, he ran a 16:57.2.
“I was really pleased about that and I was already thinking about joining track,” said Abebe, now a year-round runner at Northwood and member of the USA-JA Track and Field Club. “When I thought about it more, I thought it was what I wanted to do.”
Reumante said he expects Abebe’s times to continue dropping in the upcoming cross country season.
“He really doesn’t have much mileage under his belt so I think this cross country season he’ll have a really good season and in indoor, outdoor, he’ll be looking to compete for a state championship,” Reumante said. “... It’ll get harder but right now he just doesn’t have any sense of what he’s done. I don’t think he understands that he won nationals.”