Don Timm ran the mile for Burnsville High School and was the Missota Conference champion in the spring of 1967. He arrived on the University of Minnesota campus that fall and went to Roy Griak’s office at Cooke Hall.
“I asked Coach Griak if I could try out for the cross-country team,’’ Timm said. “He had never heard of me — and there was no reason that he should — and I was a month late for the start of practice. Coach Griak could have said, ‘I’m sorry,’ but instead he walked me down to the equipment room and got me a pair of shoes.’’
Four years later, Timm was the Big Ten champion in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, and then ran a time of 8 minutes, 39 seconds to finish fourth in the NCAA meet in mid-June 1971 in Seattle.
That was quite a meet for runners of distance, with Marty Liquori winning the mile, Steve Prefontaine winning the 3-mile and Timm’s teammate, the great Garry Bjorklund, winning the 6-mile.
“In 1971, the steeplechase was the only race in the NCAA meet that was run at meters, not yards,’’ Timm said.
And for more than four decades, in Griak’s program and now Steve Plasencia’s, with a wonderful tradition in distance running, that 8:39 stood as the Gophers record.
It was not a record that Obsa Ali knew existed, or one that he would have been interested in breaking, as a sophomore at Richfield High School.
“I had two friends, Moses and Leo, on the soccer team who said, ‘We should go out for track; the running will help us with soccer,’ ” Ali said. “I was doing shorter races. The distance coach [Marty Huberty] came up to me and said, ‘Do you think you could run around the track twice without stopping?’
“I hid from him for the next few days. I didn’t want to do that.’’
Huberty finally cornered Ali and convinced him to give it a try. Before he was done at Richfield, Ali was a state champion in cross-country and at 3,200 meters in track.
And last Friday, running for the Gophers in the NCAA West Regional in Sacramento, Ali won the 3,000-meter steeplechase at 8:36.49. That’s the fastest collegiate time this spring, and it also took Don Timm’s 8:39.0 off the board as the Gophers’ record-holder.
Timm’s record lasted 47 years.
“When Obsa was a freshman, coach Griak said to me, ‘Watch this young man; he’s the real deal,’ ” Timm said.
Griak still was going to work every day as a coach emeritus when Ali was a freshman for the Gophers in 2014-15. Roy died on July 9, 2015, at age 91. It was another two years before Ali acted on a suggestion from Plasencia to try the steeplechase.
“My coach said, ‘You’re flexible; you could handle the hurdles; you could be good at it,’ ” Ali said. “I didn’t really want it. I was afraid of the water jumps.’’
Ali gave steeplechasing a try at the Bear Cat Twilight meet at Concordia University in St. Paul on May 3, 2017. His time was 9:05, the best in a field that included five Gophers.
Two weeks later, Ali ran his second steeplechase, took 20 seconds off his time, and finished second in the Big Ten meet. Turned out, Plasencia was correct — the flexible, light-as-air Ali was good at it.
He will be going to Eugene, Ore., for the NCAA championships next week among the steeplechase favorites, after a 14th-place finish in 2017. He’s a senior academically, with a year of eligibility remaining in track but not in cross-country (he competed as a freshman).
Ali was born in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, in 1996. His mother, Hadia, moved to the United States three years later, and Obsa lived with his grandmother Kadija. He moved here in 2007, living with his mother and family in south Minneapolis.
He went to school in Richfield. He wanted to be a soccer star and was also a successful varsity wrestler at 120 pounds.
Track was something to do for conditioning in the spring, until Marty Huberty finally convinced him to run two laps without stopping around Richfield’s quarter-mile track.
Now, Ali has those 7½ laps and 35 jumps as the challenge, with seven of the jumps including water.
“I don’t think I’ve run my best,’’ he said. “I don’t always ‘go for it’ on the water jumps. I will have to do that at the NCAA meet.’’
Footnote: Ali set a Gophers’ record for the 10K in cross-country last November. The time of 29:23.06 replaced a 29:26 in the 1976 NCAA championships — run by none other than Plasencia.
Meaning, when Obsa Ali decides to wipe out a school record, he does so with a historical flair.