Leesburg steepling pair moves on at NCAAs

Fitsum Seyoum didn’t last long during freshman tryouts for the Tuscarora track team.

“Most of track season is pretty warm, but tryouts were early in the year, so it was pretty cold and wet,” former Tuscarora coach Troy Harry said. “He didn’t stick with it.”

Fortunately, Seyoum came back the next year and went on to Virginia Tech, where his mastery of the 3,000 meter steeplechase has led him to two Atlantic Coast Conference titles and his second straight trip to the semifinals of the NCAA Championships. What does he like about the event?

“Those water jumps shock your body each lap, that cold water really wakes you up,” he said.

This year, he’s going to be joined in the semifinals by former Husky teammate Derek Johnson, who was two years behind him in high school and now running for the University of Virginia. They led their heat during the NCAA quarterfinals. Seyoum has the U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier and Johnson needs to cut four more seconds to make it to the Trials. Georgetown’s Parker Stokes and George Mason’s Annabelle Eastman have also moved onto the NCAA steeplechase semifinals. Post-collegiately, Chantilly alumnus Sean McGorty and Lake Braddock alumna Katy Kunc have the Olympic Trials qualifiers for the steeplechase and McGorty has the Olympic standard.

In non-steeple events Virginia Tech student and Robinson alumna Lauren Berman is moving on in the 1500, as are Patriot alumna Rachel McArthur (Colorado), Northwest alumna Diego Zarate (Virginia Tech) , Georgetown’s Jack Salisbury and Sami Corman. Georgetown’s Robert Brandt advanced in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters.

Seyoum and Johnson both took on steepling during their first years in college. Then-Tech coach Ben Thomas suggested Seyoum try some steeple drills, noting that if it didn’t work out, he could run the 10,000 meters.

“I was praying the steeple worked,” Seyoum said. “That’s 7,000 meters longer, and I’d rather not run that.”

A stress fracture put him back during the late fall, but by the spring he finished seventh at the ACC championships. During his sophomore outdoor season, coming into the conference meet ranked ninth, Seyoum finished third and ran 8:49.

“That’s when I started to understand that it’s a pretty cool event,” he said. “The barriers help. I feel like in distance races, it’s so easy to lose focus. You have to be engaged the whole time during the steeple. Every 100 meters or so you have a barrier of some kind.”

And that splash of cold water helps keep him present, too.

He won the ACC meet in 2019 and advanced to the NCAA semifinals, but during the pandemic, Seyoum dealt with a stress fracture in his femur and a strain in his groin. Unable to work on hurdling drills, he focused on his speed between the barriers and ran 4:00.74 to finish fourth at the ACC indoor meet in February. During the same season, fellow Tuscarora alumnus Ben Nibbelink, also running for Virginia Tech, ran 3:58.34 for the mile. Seyoum topped out at 8:31.23 at the most recent ACC meet.

Johnson, who came back from a bout with Lyme disease during his senior year of high school, knew he was catching up to his teammates at Virginia, but wanted to contribute somehow. Then-coach Jason Dunn introduced him to the steeplechase, and while he didn’t immediately master it, he appreciated the challenge it offered.

“It rewards you for grinding, being tough,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to hurdle when you’re running 68-second laps than when you’re running 73-second laps – the speed just helps the movement come together.”

While he didn’t have the speed during his first year, Johnson focused on the mechanics, and eased into the event with a few 2,000 meter steeples. From the 2019 season to 2021, he dropped 22 seconds from his 3,000 steeple time and got down to 8:36.86 for fourth at the ACC Championships.

“That’s when it all came together for me,” Johnson said. “That’s when I first thought I had an opportunity to take a shot at nationals.”

His regional race was a revelation, too, once he got to enjoy leading with Seyoum.

“That was my first great race,” he said. “The steeple puts a premium on being out in front early, you can see more and people don’t move up as much as they do in other races. I committed to the pace much easier at regionals than I ever had before.”

Back at home in Leesburg, Harry saw two guys who, though competitors, were looked so relaxed that it seemed like they were doing a workout together.

“There’s a lot of comfort that comes with racing a guy you’ve put in thousands of miles with,” he said. “Fits knew how to lead and Derek was comfortable enough knowing how to race fast enough to make it.”

The two of them along with Nibbelink, who also finished 14th in the 3,000 at the NCAA Indoor Championships, keep one another on their toes.

“My younger guys push me, I need to keep matching that,” Seyoum said. “They’re always looking to beat me, but when I was hurt this winter and saw Ben taking off, it helped motivate me when I needed it.”

And Seyoum has been motivating Johnson.

“Seeing Fits do this and make progress to be ACC champion means a lot,” he said. “It’s a bar to measure yourself against and it’s easier to see the long game if you can see someone in parallel.”

Harry knows how rare it is to see high school standouts continue on their earlier trajectories.

“It’s not surprising to see them do well, but it is remarkable to see all three of them performing at a really high level,” he said. “For them, it’s a continuation of what they were doing in high school – their approach to it, their love of the sport, they way they love to compete.”

“It’s a remarkable story and it speaks to the strength of our area. If you look at the caliber of runners these days nationalls, it’s great to see Loudoun County become a hotbed for distance running.”

In addition to Loudoun Valley’s recent success on the national high school level, Loudoun County alumnus Tommy Curtain has pursued a professional career after All-American honors at Virginia Tech.

Seyoum graduated last month and will make a decision about his competitive running future after the Olympic Trials, but he’s not looking past the NCAA Championships – the semifinals are June 9.

“Anything can happen in the finals,” he said. “I want to be there.”

After running, he plans to pursue a career in sales, drawn by his competitiveness and personability, but he hopes to be able to return to Tuscarora in a volunteer coaching role.

“When I’m not racing in my Tech uniform, I wear my Tuscarora jersey,” he said.

Though Harry has retired from coaching, his runners haven’t forgotten him.

“Harry prepared us for the next level,” Seyoum said. “He gets you love the sport, he’s committed to you and all he asks is everything you have. It’s the same in college and that makes the transition easier. I wouldn’t have made it without him.”

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