By Carl Little
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 8, 2008
So much of what goes into Solomon Haile's story comes down to distance. The more than 7,000 miles he flew in October 2007 from his native Ethiopia to the Washington area. The 15 miles he commutes round-trip on public transportation each day to attend Sherwood High. The 3.1 miles he runs on cross-country courses, setting records with each passing race. Or that same distance when he runs it on a track, faster than just about any other high school athlete in the country.
No matter how far or fast he goes, though, he continues to be chased by something more difficult to measure: doubt. At meets, some fellow runners snicker that he's at least 20 years old. On the Web, there are stories and postings saying he earned cash while competing under a different name.
As he gets ready for the Maryland state cross-country championships today in Hereford, the doubts persist -- despite the fact that the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association has cleared Haile twice.
"At first, I just try to ignore it, all this thing, but it's hard," the soft-spoken Haile said. "They destroyed my name."
Last month, an article on a popular running Web site reported that Haile accepted prize money from winning or placing in road races -- an act the MPSSAA forbids, and one that could jeopardize his chances for a major Division I college scholarship (Texas, Kansas, Purdue and North Carolina State are among those vying for him). The story prompted Montgomery County Public Schools officials to ask for a meeting with Haile, his sister Naomi and Sherwood Coach Dan Reeks.
After an hour-long sit-down at Sherwood, Duke Beattie, director of athletics for MCPS, and Sherwood Athletic Director Jim Meehan concluded that, while several checks had been mailed to Haile's home, he never cashed any of them.
"We've investigated his status -- the alleged status as a professional -- and we've reviewed the pertinent state regulations and definitions the state offers and Solomon passed with flying colors," Beattie said after inspecting about $600 worth of uncashed checks and unredeemed gift certificates that were piled on the table. "I've conducted the investigation on behalf of the school system and the state athletic association and he completely satisfies all state and Montgomery County regulations."
Said Ned Sparks, executive director of the MPSSAA: "I'm satisfied with the result. He's clear with the state."
Haile's age came under suspicion in January, shortly after enrolling at Sherwood and running a blistering 9 minutes 13.22 seconds in his first 3,200-meter indoor event for the Warriors. Footage of his post-race interview surfaced on the Internet and some visitors to running Web sites and Internet chat rooms identified him as Solomon Semunguse, a 20-year-old who had competed in road races in Europe, Asia and along the East Coast of the United States in 2007.
According to the MPSSAA, students who are 19 or older on Aug. 31 are ineligible to compete in athletics for the upcoming school year.
The Haile family declined a request by The Post to review his original birth certificate. Beattie said MCPS has a copy of Haile's birth certificate on record and confirmed his age before initially clearing him to compete at Sherwood.
"Our school officials have checked with his school back in Ethiopia and the dates were in sync with the birth certificate," Beattie said. "We're satisfied with the birth date."
Naomi, who helped bring Solomon to the United States last year and with whom he lived in McLean when he first arrived, said she is to blame for the age snafu. While converting Haile's birthday from the Coptic calendar used in Ethiopia to the Gregorian calendar used in the United States, she mistakenly registered Haile for races last year as a 20-year-old. She said she didn't catch her error until Haile was vilified in running chat rooms. Some posts called him a cheater; others said he should be taken "off the track and back to Ethiopia."
"I'm the troublemaker," said Naomi, one of Solomon's eight brothers and sisters. "He was born on a different year on a different day in a different month in Ethiopia. I got him older than he really is."
As for the name issue, Haile and Semunguse are the same person, Solomon said. In Ethiopia, it is customary for a child to take the father's first name as a last name, Haile said. His father, who still lives in Ethiopia, is named Semunguse Haile.
"If I go to Ethiopia, people call me Semunguse; no one call me Haile," Haile said. "This is the tradition. But when my siblings here use the last name Haile, I have to be the same because I am brother and sister."'Foreign and Fast'
One thing no one questions about Haile is his talent. A lean 6 feet 2, Haile is ranked No. 2 nationwide in cross-country by DyeStat.com, the country's preeminent high school running Web site, and has won five major races this season with record times.
His signature win came last month at the Manhattan College Invitational in New York. He broke away from the field on the 2.5-mile course at Van Cortlandt Park and blitzed the finish line in 12:06.61, 21 seconds faster than the runner-up. No one in the 36-year history of the legendary meet had done it faster.
Reeks, who has won three team state cross-country championships in 38 years of coaching in Montgomery County, said a talent like Haile is a "rare" find. "He'll probably end up being faster than anyone I've ever coached," Reeks said.
Haile has an opportunity to extend his streak of dominance at today's Maryland state championships in Hereford. He hasn't lost a cross-country race since arriving in Montgomery County, yet his success doesn't sit well with everyone in the running community.
"It's not just because he's foreign. It's because he's foreign and fast," said Quince Orchard Coach Seann Pelkey, who has coached the Cougars to four state titles in his 10 years at the school.
"It's kind of sad the way people have come at him anonymously. There's some people who feel a sense of entitlement, something's being taken from them. . . . With all he's been through, with the answers that have come out about repeated questions. They've been addressed and addressed well. Some people aren't just going to be satisfied. If it was a John Smith, they might be satisfied."
Today, Haile will attempt to further solidify his place as one of the state's best distance runners ever despite such a short career. The Bull Run course record is 15:51, set last month by Atholton senior Graham Bazell.
But Haile views a state title as only the beginning. Another national title is what he craves most -- Haile won the Nike 5K national championship indoors and outdoors last school year in record times -- and when he talks about the bigger races, his usually modest demeanor gives way to a bit of swagger. He calls Foot Locker Nationals "the big one" and, if he finishes in the top 15 in the Northeast Region, back at Van Cortlandt Park on Nov. 29, he will earn a shot at the national title in San Diego on Dec. 13.
"I never wish to get second," Haile said.
His running stride is effortless, devoid of wasted motion. Watching him, it's difficult to realize just how fast he is going. At a meet last month, a race official drove a tractor ahead of the race leaders to show the way. The driver said he had to run the tractor at 14 mph just to stay ahead of Haile -- nearly 15 mph downhill.'Like Any of the Other Guys'
Haile is an endearing mix of humility and self-assuredness. His utter lack of arrogance easily won over his schoolmates. Last month he was nominated for homecoming king.
Seniors Kyle Balderson and Nate Toll, captains on Sherwood's cross-country team, said their own times have improved as a result of Haile's advice and encouragement in practice.
"He's really supportive of everyone else," said Toll, 17. "He's just like any of the other guys we have. But he makes it look pretty easy."
It wasn't always easy for Haile. He grew up wanting to play soccer in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital and largest city. When he saw runners at the nearby track, he and his friends laughed at them. He couldn't imagine running without a ball at his feet.
One of the runners noticed Haile's form as he played soccer and told the young Haile he had potential as a runner. Flattered, Haile started practicing with the stranger and his friends. He frequently lagged behind, but ran until he improved.
He wakes each morning at 5:30 to take public transportation to Sherwood, where he was assigned because of its English for Speakers of Other Languages program. Preparing for his High School Assessment tests, which measure his progress toward the state's core high school learning requirements, and juggling interest from nearly 25 Division I schools often keeps a bleary-eyed Haile up past midnight.
"He is pretty solid academically and is working very hard to graduate in June with his class," Reeks said.
Running has long been an outlet for Haile. But even when he adds another record to his list of accomplishments, he still appears stoic. Haile says his reserve comes from an awareness that the road in front of him is longer than the one behind.
"This is my beginning," Haile said. "My brothers and sisters ask me a lot of times, 'Why you not like other kids when you win the prize, jumping or throwing something?' I have a big dream, really. I'm happy with all I did, all of my success, but I'm not satisfied yet."