INDIANAPOLIS -- The time-honored adage of student-becomes-master took on a new hue Thursday morning as two-time U.S. Olympian Dathan Ritzenheim posed as a pupil at North Central (Indianapolis, Ind.) before popping up from his desk chair to surprise Panthers senior Futsum Zeinasellassie (FOOT-sum Zen-ih-sal-ahsee) with the 2011-12 Gatorade National Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year trophy.
“It was just a normal Thursday and then Dathan Ritzenheim was standing there,” said Zeinasellassie. “I never thought I would win an award this big. Unbelievable. I’m in shock. On behalf of distance runners everywhere , I thank Gatorade and ESPNHS.”
The 5-foot-8, 134-pound Zeinasellassie raced to the Nike Cross Nationals Final championship this past season with a course-record time of 15:02.41. He broke the tape at the NXN Midwest Regional championships (15:42.8) as well as the Foot Locker Midwest Regional championships (14:58). Zeinasellassie finished second at the national Foot Locker Cross Country Championships with a time of 14:52.1.
The returning Gatorade Indiana Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year, he also won his third consecutive individual state championship in a course-record 14:48.8 en route to a meet-record 44-second margin of victory.
“He was completely shocked,” said Ritzenhein, the former American record-holder in the 5,000-meter run who twice earned Gatorade Michigan Boys Track & Field Athlete of the Year honors from 1999-01. "He had no idea I wasn’t a normal kid in his class. That was awesome. He's super nice and really deserves this.”
Ritzenheim narrowly missed qualification for the 2012 Summer Games at this month’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, finishing in fourth place and just eight seconds off the pace that would have earned a berth. The 29-year-old is a three-time USA 12K Cross Country champion and represents America’s brightest hope for a medal in the 5K or 10K in London.
The 2003 NCAA Cross Country Champion at the University of Colorado, Ritzenheim twice won Foot Locker nationals as a prep star for Rockford (Mich.).
“Futsum certainly had one of the finest seasons any prep harrier has had,” said ESPNHS Dyestat Senior Editor Steve Underwood. “In his biggest races before a one-second loss at Foot Locker nationals, he produced stunning performances: Beating a course record held by two-time Gatorade National Runner of the Year Lukas Verzbicas in his dominant state meet triumph, then breaking the Nike Cross Nationals Final meet record in Portland -- where he also enjoyed the biggest margin of victory in meet history.
"Only Verzbicas has won both national meets (in a single season), and the fact that Futsum came within a second of doing so as well, speaks volumes."
Zeinasellassie has maintained a B average in the classroom. A devoted member of his church community, where his father is a pastor, he has volunteered with youth track programs and raised funds to benefit a school in Kenya.
Zeinasellassie emigrated to the United States from the east African nation of Eritrea (AIR-ih-treeah) as a seventh grader. His 21-year-old brother, Bahlbi Gebreyohanns, now a sophomore distance talent at Northern Arizona University, spent a year in an Ethiopian refugee camp until being cleared to enter the U.S. and rejoining the family in the summer of 2008.
Already a competitive runner in his native country, Bahlbi made an immediate impact on Zeinasellassie's decision to train for cross country. His role as his younger brother's unofficial coach helped produce a seventh-place finish for Zeinassellassie as a freshman at the 2008 Foot Locker nationals. Zeinassellassie also finished second behind Verzbicas at the 2010 Foot Locker finals. A three-time track state champion in the 3,200-meter run, the teen ran a personal-best 8:56.73 last spring, ranking No. 16 nationally among prep competitors in 2011.
Zeinasellassie, who turned 19 on December 16, is the first Indiana athlete to earn Gatorade National Cross Country Runner of the Year recognition. He is the state’s fifth male to win national Gatorade honors and the 11th overall in the award’s 27-year-history, making Indiana the nation’s fifth most-recognized state behind California (57), Texas (25), Florida (18) and Illinois (13).
The last boys’ winner from the Hoosier State before Zeinasellassie was Lawrence North (Indianapolis, Ind.) sensation and current Portland Trailblazers center Greg Oden, one of only eight athletes ever to win national Gatorade honors twice. He captured back-to-back basketball honors from 2004-06. The last national girls' winner was former Washington (South Bend, Ind.) and current Notre Dame standout Skylar Diggins.
Gatorade State and National Player of the Year alumni from the realm of professional running include 60-meter hurdles American record-holder Lolo Jones (Iowa, 1997-98), three-time 200-meter World Champion Allyson Felix (California and National, 2002-03), 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials winner Meb Keflezighi (California, 1993-94), American Mile Record-holder Alan Webb (Virginia and National, 2000-01) and Ryan Hall (California, 2000-01), an Olympic Marathon qualifier for the U.S. in the upcoming London Summer Games.
Want to know who won Gatorade Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year in your state? Click here. Visit the ESPNHS Player of the Year blog and be the first to know who wins 2011-12 Gatorade Player of the Year hardware in eight other sports by following the ESPNHS team that manages the award program’s selection process.