No one could have predicted how last year’s NCAA steeple final would turn out, certainly not Minnesota’s Obsa Ali, who was as stunned as anyone after the finish. The Gopher junior had been part of the chase pack behind Brian Barraza, who had made a daring choice to hammer out a massive lead. “I knew I was pretty fit,” Ali says. “Even after the prelims I felt really good, but I just didn’t know. Anything could have happened in that final.”
Then he saw the Houstonian clip a hurdle on the last lap and hit the ground hard. “I just took advantage of that and went for it,” he explains. “And all of it happened so fast that the last 300m was, it was a blink. When I came through the finish line, I couldn’t believe it.” In just his second year in the event, Ali had won a national title with his PR 8:32.23.
For a young man who was a reluctant runner at first, the way forward seemed clear. Born in Ethiopia, Ali came to the U.S. 9 years after his refugee mother settled in Minneapolis. During those years that the family was separated by difficulties with immigration and paperwork, he lived with his grandmother. When he finally got to Minneapolis, he was 12 and didn’t know English. What he knew was soccer. “As big of a running community that Ethiopia is, I feel like not many people do it still,” he says. “I felt like I had more expectation on me to play soccer than to go out and run.”
At Richfield High, Ali’s first choices were soccer and wrestling: “My soccer teammates encouraged me to come out for track & field. It was something for me to do, and hang out with them in track season as well. I started doing the 200 and the long jump. The distance coach came up to me and asked if I could do two laps without stopping. I told him, ‘No way. I’m not doing it. I’m not doing distance.’”
The coach, Marty Huberty, was persistent, and by mid-season was able to get Ali to try his first 800. He ran 2:16. “He just kept me and I trained with them. And the next year I came back,” says Ali. “My sophomore year I focused more on distance, so I trained with the distance guys and that’s the first year that I made State, so I just stuck with it after that.”
Playing soccer in the fall, wrestling in the winter, Ali still placed 2nd in his State 3200 with a PR 9:18.25. As one would expect, his friends would sometimes razz him. “All the time. That was the go-to saying from everyone—you’re good at running because you’re Ethiopian.”
They had no idea just how good he would get. As a junior, he went out for cross country for the first time, simultaneous with his soccer season. Ali scored a State runner-up finish in 15:25 in his first season. In track, he won his first crown with an 8:57.07 after placing 3rd in the 1600 in 4:10.91.
In the winters, Ali would wrestle, trimming his weight; he ran at about 125lb (57kg) and wrestled at 120 (54kg). “I liked it,” he says. “I think when I came into track season I wasn’t burned out from all the winter training and whatnot. I was fresh and I felt like wrestling helped to keep me in shape, head to toe. It’s such a hard sport. Wrestling for 6:00 was definitely harder than running a 5K, so I felt like wrestling helped me stay in shape during the indoor.” It would be hard to argue with the results. As a senior, Ali won the XC title (minus a shoe at the finish) and placed 10th at NXN in 15:15. In track he didn’t get his best times, but he got close.
All that was left was picking a college, and that wasn’t hard: “I grew up like 15 minutes away from campus, so I knew I always wanted to come here, but I just didn’t know how. And then the opportunity came with running.”
His improvement under the coaching of Steve Plasencia has been steady. After a redshirt season where he clocked 3:47.40 in the 1500, he ran a 14:01.55 for 5000 as a frosh, but failed to score any Big 10 points. His soph year brought a new challenge: “We knew we wanted to score as many points as possible at Big 10s. And it was either the 5 and 10 or something in between. So we went with steeple and I was pretty nervous about doing that at first and getting hurt. We tried it at a local meet before we even traveled. I ran it well, so we just went with that.”
In his steeple debut he covered the barriers in 9:05.00; 10 days later he was the Big 10 runner-up in 8:45.55. He made it to the NCAA but didn’t get out of the heats. That set him up for ’18, a season that opened his eyes to having a real future in the sport. He ran a 5000 PR 13:43.13 at Stanford, but never considered switching. “Even after we ran that,” he explains, “we still said, ‘We’re going to run the steeple at Nationals.’”
Now he is just beginning what he hopes will be a great final season for the Gophers. “Something I haven’t had my time here is an indoor season that I’m very proud of, so that would be something I’d want to focus on. Then go to outdoors. Just do everything I’ve been doing, changing nothing, listening to my coach and everything should fall in line. I want to finish as well as I did last year at Nationals.”
He’ll be 23 by then, with a degree in Business Marketing & Human Resource Development. And an eye toward a future in the steeplechase. “That would be cool,” he says, “but it’s also something that I don’t think about too much. Just let it happen naturally. But it’s something that I definitely look forward to.”