Richfield's Ali is part runner, part juggler

  • Article by: DAVID LA VAQUE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2012 - 10:32 PM

Richfield junior Obsa Ali is a time-management wizard, participating in both soccer and cross-country. He says he can balance his busy schedule.

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Richfield’s Obsa Ali, wearing bib 391, threw up about two miles into this Classic Suburban Conference preview cross-country meet Tuesday. He still won by nearly a minute.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Within 96 hours last week, Richfield junior Obsa Ali won a conference cross-country meet in which he vomited during the race, played most of an overtime soccer game in which he was cleated and won another meet Friday.

Ali is a rare high school athlete, competing in two varsity sports simultaneously at a time when many of his peers make a year-round trade out of their one preferred sport.

Oh, he wrestles and competes in track and field, too.

But Ali isn't out to make a point. He's just indulging his athletic passions.

"I'm lucky to be healthy enough to do both," Ali said. "Not a lot of people have that chance so I'm very blessed."

A lifelong soccer player, he made Richfield's varsity as a sophomore. Last spring Ali ran track and showcased his distance running talents. A second-place finish in the Class 2A 3,200-meter race got him thinking about cross-country in the fall.

A soccer player first -- Ali was voted one of the Spartans captains this fall -- he developed a modified workout plan with cross-country coach Marty Huberty. He would do abbreviated cross-country workouts on soccer game days and run a handful of meets to prepare him for the postseason.

Doubts arose about Ali's ability to manage both sports after he looked sluggish during an early-season soccer game. Rather than give up, Ali and his coaches tweaked the schedule. No more cross-country workouts on game days, just light jogging.

"I don't like quitting," said Ali, who is ranked eighth in this week's Class 2A cross-country coaches poll.

Two sports, one heart

Ali's resolve has been tested several times this season. He gutted out a second-place finish Aug. 31 at the Dakota Classic after playing a 7 p.m. soccer game the night before.

About two miles into the Classic Suburban Conference preview race last Tuesday, Ali threw up but never slowed down. He won the 5,000- meter race by almost a full minute, leaving a teammate to remark, "He throws up and gets first. Who does that?"

Lingering soreness in his calf muscles required Ali to ice his legs Thursday morning before school. Then he played almost the entire soccer game that evening against St. Thomas Academy. Ali got cleated during regulation play and left briefly to have his ankle taped.

To compose his team as it prepared for overtime, coach Brad Johnson called out, "Obsa, get them together." Without a word, Ali moved a few steps from the bench toward the sideline. Teammates immediately surrounded their leader.

"It is a lot of pressure but he's showing the poise and composure he's always shown," said Johnson, whose team eventually lost 2-1.

Added Huberty: "He does both sports from the heart."

Taking after mom

Ali credits his mother, Hadia Borou, for his drive. Born in Ethiopia, Ali lived with his mother for two years before she immigrated to the United States. Difficulties with immigration, citizenship and paperwork prevented her from getting Obsa to the U.S. for nine years.

Ali lived with his maternal grandmother, seeing his mother in pictures and on videos and talking to her on the telephone. Borou sent money to put Ali in private school where he learned English. He talks with a trace of an accent.

"My mom is a very hard worker," Ali said. "I just follow her. I'm just like my mom. If I want something I just work hard for it. If I want to do something I just get into it. I don't back down."

That determination leaves Borou concerned for her son.

"I worry about his focus on school," she said. "He said, 'Mom, I can do it.' He looks tired sometimes. I worry about him."

Ali's teammate, Jack Stellon, knows the challenges well. He plays soccer and kicks for the Spartans football team this fall. He and Ali take the same health, physics and social studies classes.

"He's a heck of an athlete," Stellon said. "We push each other because it's fun to do both. And we're both keeping up with our academics."

Brighter running future?

Feeling good less than 24 hours after the St. Thomas Academy soccer game, Ali outkicked notable runners Steven Cotter of Andover and Ahmed Bule of St. Paul Central to win the Lakeville North Applejack Invitational in a time of 15 minutes, 51 seconds.

Runners approached him after the race, he said, asking, "Where was I the whole season?"

Huberty hears similar questions.

"Cross-country coaches ask me why I let him play soccer, but I tell them soccer lets him run cross-country," Huberty said.

Ali plans to compete in a few more cross-country meets before soccer season ends. In the past five seasons, the season ended by mid-October.

Ali will then train for the Class 2A, Section 3 race on Oct. 25. Finish strong at the state meet, Huberty said, and "college cross-country coaches will come pounding on his door."

As for Ali's soccer prospects, Johnson said, "We'll cross that bridge when it comes. You don't want to make plans too far ahead."

Ali insists that balancing cross-country and soccer isn't hard. What's hard is deciding what the future holds. He is leaning toward committing to one sport next fall.

"I'm still debating," Ali said. "We'll find out next year."

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