FOUR YEARS ago the Willmar ( Minn.) High cross-country team couldn't even win a local meet. Now Willmar has won two straight state titles, and it qualified for last Saturday's Nike Team Nationals in Portland. What changed for the little school on the western Minnesota prairie? An influx of athletes from Somalia.
About 1,000 Somalis, made refugees by civil war, have come to Willmar over the last decade, drawn to the town of 20,000, 100 miles west of St. Paul, by a Jennie-O turkey-processing plant that has hired many immigrant workers. Abdi Awale, now a senior, was the first Somali to come out for the team four years ago. The next year he recruited his friend Kaafi Adeys, and three more Somalis joined the team as the year progressed. "They just trickled in," recalls Jerry Popp, the team's co-coach, who says the Somalians brought an uncommon determination to training. "Coaching these kids is like coaching any other kids," Popp says. "Get them to believe you care about them, they'll do just about anything for you."
This year Somalian runners had five of the team's seven varsity spots, and last month the fivesome won the Minnesota team title by setting a state record with an average time of 15:49.4. In Portland on Saturday they finished in 16th place after a 40-man pileup slowed five of their seven runners in the beginning of the race.
Any triumph seems impressive given the tragic history of these athletes, at least three of whom lost family members in the civil war, which has displaced more than 300,000 since 1991. When Adeys was about four and living in Somalia, his father was killed. "I just know it happened in the war," says the senior who came to Willmar with his mother when he was nine years old. After long journeys that began in refugee camps, the runners say they feel at home in Willmar, in no small part because of the team's success. "People congratulate us everywhere we go," says Adeys. "It's a good feeling."