Weini Kelati lined up for the first race of her high school career as a relative unknown on the Virginia cross-country scene. By the end of that race — the Oatlands Invitational in September — the newest addition to the Heritage team had notched her first high school win and placed herself among the fastest distance runners in the state.
A native of Eritrea who arrived in the United States this summer, the 17-year-old freshman, with two years of athletics eligibility, went untested during the season, winning by large margins with ease. But on Nov. 6 at the Virginia 4A North region meet in Winchester, Kelati met her match.
E.C. Glass sophomore Libby Davidson, the state’s top-rated runner, kept up with Kelati stride for stride. Unable to break away, Kelati pushed past her preferred pace too early. Late in the race, Davidson pulled away to win by 16 seconds.
“It was clearly a wakeup call for Weini,” Heritage Coach Doug Gilbert said. “We told her she wouldn’t be running off the front the way she has in the past. She turned it on way too early on a tough course and paid the price.”
Defeat is an unfamiliar feeling for Kelati, who began running in Eritrea — an East African nation that borders Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti — at the age of 12. But on Saturday at the 4A state meet at Great Meadow, she will get another crack at Davidson and an opportunity to further her dream of creating a path to running prominence in a new country.
Kelati’s arrival in Leesburg came as a surprise to Gilbert and the Heritage athletic department. Amlesom Teklai, Kelati’s legal guardian and third cousin, approached Gilbert at a September cross-country practice to inquire about Kelati running with the team. During the conversation, Teklai mentioned Kelati had competed with the Eritrean junior national team at the International Association of Athletics Federations Junior World Championships in Eugene, Ore., in July. When he got home, Gilbert Googled Kelati’s name and the competition and found a video of her 3,000-meter final race. Kelati placed eighth. Gilbert suddenly realized Kelati was no average runner.
Following the Junior World Championships, Kelati moved in with Teklai, who has his own running history. He competed for West Potomac, earning All-Met honors in 1997, before running in college at Stephen F. Austin. Teklai, who lives with his wife and three young children in Leesburg, now considers Kelati part of his immediate family.
“We’re excited to see her and see what she can do in her career,” Teklai said. “Anytime you have a family member that needs help and you can help them do something good, that’s really exciting. She came to America and has a good career ahead of her.”
At her first practice, Kelati’s new teammates were surprised by her stature — she’s barely five feet tall. “We thought she was going to be 6-foot-1, super tall,” junior Kenzie Scanlon said.
Kelati began the practice running with the boys. With 10 minutes remaining in a 30-minute tempo run, Kelati took off and left them behind. The next practice, Heritage assistant coach Matt Holton became her training partner.
“The second day of practice I thought I would try to stay with her,” Holton said. “We went out and back, and out and back. On the second out and back, Coach Gilbert was ready with the car in case I couldn’t make it. I was determined to stick with her. It was one of the hardest runs of my life.”
Kelati first earned notice as a top runner in Eritrea at age 12, when she entered a six-kilometer race with 18-to-25-year-olds and placed 13th. “People were saying, ‘Good job.’ But I was not happy [because I didn’t win],” she said.
Kelati competed in international meets across Europe, running a 3.1-mile personal best in 17 minutes 5 seconds in Belgium.
“In my country, all of the people who run distance are great,” Kelati said. “We practice in a hot climate, there’s no forest. It’s a desert. It’s up and down. It’s a lot harder.”
One difference, Kelati noted, was that when she would go on training runs in Eritrea, traffic would stop for the runners. She’s not a fan of being forced to stop at crosswalks when she and Holton are running along the sidewalks near the school.
Kelati was unable to speak English when she arrived in the United States in July, although the word “run” was in her vocabulary. Over the last four months, her English has significantly improved. Kelati has even received language lessons from the team’s freshmen boys, who have made it a point to help teach her during lunch at school.
Scanlon has become Kelati’s closest friend on the team and drives Kelati to and from school most days. Kelati said Scanlon can “understand her words” the best. Kelati was shy around the girls at first but has since opened up and won her teammates over with kindness.
“The first thing she does is run up to you and give you a hug and ask how your day was,” junior Georgie Mackenzie said.
Heritage has never had a runner come through like Kelati. At a recent meet, assistant coach Nancy Merriman said she overheard a father and daughter unaffiliated with Heritage talking about wanting to watch Kelati race. After the Loudoun County Championships, a runner from another school asked for Kelati’s autograph following her first-place run in 17:28.
The Loudoun County Championships time is Kelati’s best this season. Davidson, her top competition at Saturday’s state meet, ran a 17:07.3 at the Great American XC Festival in Cary, N.C., in early October.
The next step is figuring out how to manage Kelati’s future. Multiple colleges have expressed interest but cooled after learning about her situation. She only has two years of athletics eligibility but has to complete four years of schooling to receive a high school diploma. Ensuring she can continue competing against high-level competition once her eligibility at Heritage ends is the next challenge.
“That’s something for the next year and a half we’ll have to think about,” Gilbert said. “It’s a broad range of plans.”
For now, the focus is on the short term — Saturday’s state championship and the Foot Locker South Regional meet in Charlotte later this month.
“It’s awe-inspiring. It’s awesome to watch her run,” Mackenzie said. “It’s exciting for the team to get this boost. It lifts everyone’s spirits up when you have someone that awesome on the team.”