From a running start in Eritrea to a new home in America, Weini Kelati wins NCAA cross country title

New Mexico junior Weini Kelati was the runner-up a year ago at the NCAA cross country championships and is one of the favorites again this season. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: Weini Kelati won the NCAA cross country individual title on Nov. 23 in 19 minutes, 47.5 seconds. Kelati finished over nine seconds ahead of the runner-up finisher, Alicia Monson of Wisconsin.

Weini Kelati kept her intentions a secret, even from her mom. Her two younger brothers couldn't be trusted, either. None of them could know what she was planning that day as she left her small home in a tiny farming village in Eritrea, a nation of diverse landscapes and turbulent history in the horn of Africa, with a bag of clothes, a phone and not much more.

They all knew that the 17-year-old was off to the United States -- destination Eugene, Oregon, to be exact -- to test her running talent against some of the best young distance runners in the world. They all knew she was scheduled to compete at the world junior championships as part of Eritrea's youth national team.

What they didn't know on this day in July of 2014 is that she had no intention of returning to her village of Tsada Christian anytime soon. That she was planning to stay in the United States and leave behind her mother and her two brothers, who already had suffered the death of their father.

Days later and 8,000 miles away in Eugene, Kelati finished in eighth place in the 3,000 meters, 14 seconds behind gold medalist Mary Cain of the United States, in a personal best time of 9 minutes, 12.32 seconds. Then she intentionally missed the team's return flight to Eritrea.

Seeking a more promising future, one with a better quality of life and access to better running programs and higher education, Kelati set in motion her plan to seek asylum in the United States.

First, she had to make the most difficult phone call of her life.

"I told my mother I was not coming home," Kelati said.

On Saturday, Kelati, now a junior at the University of New Mexico and the owner of a green card, will step up to the line at the NCAA cross country championships at Indiana State in Terre Haute, Indiana. She's one of the favorites to win the title.

Kelati, who was runner-up a year ago at the NCAA championships and seventh as a freshman, has lost just once this season and just three times in the past two years. Wisconsin's Alicia Monson crossed the line nine seconds ahead of her at the Oct. 18 Nuttycombe Invitational, two weeks after Kelati beat Monson by 12 seconds at the Notre Dame Invitational. Kelati has taken three of their last five meetings.

Kenyan Ednah Kurgat, Kelati's New Mexico teammate and the 2017 NCAA champion, is also in Saturday's field. Kelati has comfortably won every head-to-head cross country matchup between them the past two seasons.

"Every year, I want to improve where I finished in races before because I don't like staying in the same spot, but it will be very challenging to win a national title," Kelati said. "Alicia is a really great runner I respect, just like I respect everyone else in the race. You never know who might challenge you, but I feel ready."

Kelati feels ready after starting the month by winning her second straight Mountain West title by 49 seconds in a conference-record 19:11.2 and then last week winning her second consecutive regional championship by nearly a minute. Kelati's regional time (18:58.7) is a personal best for six kilometers and the country's fastest this season.

"Weini has been very fit all year and we're excited about her chances, but the key will be doing all we can to be sure she does not become sick or anything and get her to the starting line healthy and happy," Lobos coach Joe Franklin said. "There are about five or six women in the field who could probably win it all, but Weini is really peaking well."

Kelati hopes to erase the heartbreak of a year ago when she charged up a snowy and hilly part of the course to seize control of the NCAA championship race with just over a kilometer remaining. She opened up a 20-meter gap on the field, but Colorado senior Dani Jones reeled her in less than 400 meters from the finish. Kelati had finished 46 seconds ahead of Jones at the regional a week earlier.

"I try to learn everything I can from races for the next time, but was in shock after not winning the [NCAA] title last year," she said. "Later, I was like, 'That's OK, anything can happen in races,' and it was time to move forward and improve. I hope to be a little better this time."

Kelati's father had already died when the 12-year-old began running competitively at the urging of a physical education teacher at her school in Eritrea. In reality, though, Kelati has been running most of her life because her family lacked an automobile and had limited access to public transportation. In its short history, Eritrea has produced several international long-distance stars. Meb Keflezighi, who moved to the United States in 1987 when he was 12, won the 2009 New York City Marathon and the 2014 Boston Marathon. Zersenay Tadese won the bronze medal in 10,000 meters at the 2004 Olympics and held the half-marathon world record from 2010-2018.

"Running is a part of daily life in Eritrea," Kelati said. "And I was running, or at least walking, everywhere, including an hour to school."

Still, Kelati was initially reluctant to turn running into racing -- until she didn't win her first race. Kelati hated that feeling, and soon she was racing with her country's adult professionals in an attempt to improve and compete in international junior meets across Europe.

Eritrea, which borders Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and the Red Sea, is one of the world's newest nations. It was part of Ethiopia until gaining independence in 1991 following a 30-year war. Kelati was born five years later into a country with a weak economy and continued conflict with Ethiopia.

Kelati is hesitant to share other details of how difficult life was growing up, preferring to focus on "the amazing people" of Eritrea. And, of course, her running.

"For somebody so driven to be best at everything she does, Weini is remarkably humble and selfless." Joe Franklin

She finished in eighth place in the 2014 African Cross Country Championships in 20:03, which would have placed Kelati in the top 10 at that year's NCAA championships. She was named to Eritrea's world junior championships team soon afterward. Once Kelati learned where that meet was being held, the prospect of what life in the United States could offer her became too strong to resist. She knew very little English and had never before visited the United States, but she knew she had ambitions that would be impossible to achieve in her home country.

"I knew it was not going to be easy -- and a little scary," Kelati said. "But I also knew I would get a better education and more career opportunities."

After intentionally missing the team flight back home, Kelati contacted her closest relative in the United States, a third cousin named Amlesom Teklai who was living with his wife and three young children in Leesburg, Virginia. Although she had never met Teklai, she asked if she could stay with his family.

While caught off-guard, Teklai opened his doors and got her on the next flight to Washington, D.C. A former all-conference high school and collegiate distance runner at Stephen F. Austin, Teklai has since become Kelati's guardian.

"I was so relieved when he was more than happy to help me," she said.

After settling with her cousin in Virginia, Kelati formally applied for asylum and started assimilating herself to American life, gradually grasping English and enrolling at nearby Heritage High School as a sophomore.

Soon after school began, Teklai approached Heritage cross country coach Doug Gilbert to inquire about Kelati joining the team. Naturally, Gilbert was intrigued when Teklai explained her credentials. Later that evening, Gilbert found video of the world junior championships race online and realized how talented his newest team member was.

Kelati made an immediate impact, winning her first five races while bonding with her new teammates and getting used to weather she had never experienced. Even in the coldest months, Kelati was accustomed to temperatures that rarely dipped below 70 degrees.

"Going to school was hard at first because it was a little difficult to communicate and I had to get used to different training methods on different terrain and racing in much cooler weather, but my new teammates really took care of me," Kelati said.

They spent their lunch periods tutoring her in English and drove her to and from practices and meets. Kelati overcame her initial shyness, letting out her naturally kind personality. Soon, Kelati was regularly hugging teammates and asking how their days were going.

Kelati concluded her sophomore season by placing second at Virginia's 4A regional and state meets before taking 20th at the Foot Locker National Cross Country meet.

Those results were disappointing for Kelati, who felt training "only" 55 miles per week, about 20 fewer than she was used to, was the problem. Gilbert agreed to increase Kelati's mileage and reduce her number of easier practices.

The results were immediate.

As a junior, she was undefeated, easily winning a state title before winning the 2015 Foot Locker Nationals, where she met Keflezighi for the first time. On the track, Kelati set a state 3,200 record (9:53) and won the New Balance national indoor 2-mile and outdoor 5,000 titles.

At that point, Kelati, who turned 20 during her senior year at Heritage, was out of high school eligibility, but she had done more than enough to attract the attention of colleges. She committed to New Mexico about two months into her senior year and continued to train with her high school coaches. She obtained her green card in 2016.

"We received an email from Coach Gilbert about Weini and were certainly interested after watching video of some of her performances," Franklin said. "Once I started recruiting Weini and saw she has the biggest smile and a great personality in addition to outstanding talent, I knew she would be perfect for our program."

After enrolling at New Mexico for the 2017-18 school year, Kelati wasted no time establishing herself as one of the Lobos best runners. And one of the best in her new country.

She was named an All-American as a freshman, placing second at the Mountain West Conference championships and third in the NCAA Mountain Regional. She helped lead the team to its second national title in three years with a seventh-place finish at the NCAA championships.

That winter on the track, she won the Mountain West Championship 3,000 indoor title before earning All-American honors by placing fifth in both the 3,000 and 5,000 at the NCAA Indoor Championships.

Kelati became New Mexico's top cross country runner as a sophomore, winning all but two meets she entered. Her track success continued with the Mountain West indoor mile title and All-American finishes in the 5K (second) and the 3K (third) at the NCAA Indoor Championships. Outdoors, she won her first national title, claiming the 10K at the NCAA championships.

In that race, Kelati took the lead for good with six laps remaining before powering away from Oregon's Carmela Cardama Baez, a decorated runner from Spain, over the final 50 meters.

"It felt great to finally win a national championship," Kelati said. "I was getting a little tired of finishing second or below in national-championship races, and nobody was going to push past me."

Regardless of what happens Saturday, Franklin is elated two seasons of indoor and outdoor track and another year of cross country remain for Kelati. But he stressed her importance to the program goes beyond results.

"Weini is the greatest teammate and person, always so supportive of all our runners," he said. "For somebody so driven to be best at everything she does, Weini is remarkably humble and selfless."

Kelati, who is majoring in public health, has not seen her family since leaving her village that summer day in 2014, but she talks to them every few weeks. Her mom and brothers were blindsided by her decision to stay in the United States, but Kelati said they have been supportive.

"I am so happy with everything that has happened since I decided to stay in America, but of course, I miss my family a lot," said Kelati, her voice quivering. "Fortunately, I have had several other families here -- from my cousin's family I lived with, my high school coaches and teammates and the teammates and coaches at New Mexico. They have all made me into who I am today."

But she's far from satisfied. At the top of her list of goals is to orchestrate a reunion with her mother and brothers. She also wants to continue her running success and then put her degree to good use.

"I can't imagine not racing, and hopefully more championships are in my future along with competing in the Olympics one day for the United States," Kelati said. "With my degree, I just want to do something that helps people."