Land of 10,000 Stories, The Pride of Willmar

5:13 PM, Nov 28, 2006   |    comments
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The landscape has changed at the state high school cross country meet at Saint Olaf College in Northfield. A brand new wind turbine spins 350 feet above the course. Yet, it's still not the biggest turnaround in Minnesota high school running. Three years ago, the Willmar boys cross country team didn't dream of making it to state. The team didn’t win a meet all year, finishing ninth out of nine schools in the Central Lakes Conference. "Our goal was not to get last every meet," says one former runner. A farming community of 18,000 people, the best Willmar could hope for during cross country season was a record corn crop. But on the Minnesota prairie, seeds of change are sprouting. "Good job Mohad, Mohamed. Good job Abshire," shouts Willmar cross country co-coach Jerry Popp. He yells again to get the attention of three more runners. "Abdi! Kaafi! Mufu!" By some estimates Willmar is now home to 1,000 Somalis, coming in waves the past few years for jobs at the Jennie-O turkey plant. Abdi Awale was the first Somali teen to join Willmar’s cross country team. Abdi recruited Kaffi Adeys, who helped recruit Mohamed Bedel, who recruited Mustafa Yustuf, who recruited Ahmed Hussein. Popp recalls, "They'd come up and say ‘Popp, we got some new runners,’ and then I'd go ‘How do you know they're runners,’ and they'd go, ‘They're African. They're skinny.’" Coach Popp extended the welcome and Somali runners kept coming. This year's boys's team roster included ten Somali runners, who mixed freely with Willmar’s white runners during a recent post-practice stop for hot chocolate at Popp’s home. "I don't really see it as Somali and white kids," says runner Phil Cleary. "I see it as Abdi, I see it as Zach, I see it as Mufu, I see it as Mo. I don't really see it as we're different. We're just a team." But not just any team. Three years ago Willmar didn't win a meet. Last year it won the Class AA state championship. This year Willmar arrived at the conference meet ranked fifth in the nation. The conference meet ended with the top five runners finishing in this order - Willmar, Willmar, Willmar, Willmar, and Willmar. "It's been an incredible story. The whole community is behind them," says a Willmar parent who came to watch. An even more meaningful story, when you consider it wasn't that long ago Willmar’s Somalis were running for their lives, fleeing a civil war that cost them their homes, and worse. "Our dad died in the war," says Kaffi Adeys. Mohamed Bedel lost his father in the war too. "He died two weeks before I was born." For the roughly 40 Somali students at Willmar High School, the transition has not always been easy. Principal Rob Anderson says, "We saw kids come in this summer that had two years of formal education in 18 years." "I didn’t even know if I could finish high school," says Bedel. Now he and the other top Somali runners are weighing college athletic scholarship offers. They’ve been motivated to improve their grades to meet college entrance standards. "I plan on studying physical education, being a coach," says Adeys, who hopes one day to coach cross country and track. Anderson says he’s seen a tremendous amount of pride in the accomplishments of the cross country team that has, "helped these Somali kids blend in and integrate faster." There may be no better proof of that than a recent noon meeting of a Willmar Lions Club. Runner Mustafa Yusuf lunched with local business leaders, even joining them in singing 'Home on the Range,' a song he admitted later he had never heard before. "They want to be known as Willmar kids," says Popp. Which brings us back to the turnaround for Willmar’s cross country team. Ten new Somali runners did not hurt. But neither did another new arrival. He’s an immigrant from North Dakota who moved to Willmar to be closer to his adult children. You know him as Coach Jerry Popp. North Dakota remembers him for his 39 boys and girls state team titles, a record unmatched in North Dakota history. Three years ago Popp joined Willmar’s existing coach, Disa Daucsavage. New coach, new Americans, and Willmar had a cross country convergence. Prior to last year, just two teams had brought state titles home to Willmar, in any sport. So how couldn't Willmar be excited, when its boys cross country team won the Minnesota state team championship for the second consecutive year. "It's a new chapter in the American saga," said Somali native Abdulcadir Gall as he watched the Willmar cross country team accept its championship trophy. Another banner for Willmar high school, another page turned in the land of 10,000 stories. It often takes time to get to know new neighbors. Willmar’s kids said, "why wait?" By Boyd Huppert, KARE 11 News Photojournalists: Jonathan Malat Nate Anderson Jim Douglas Paul Rovelstad Andy Sugdgen

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