By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
NEW YORK (08-Mar) -- Here at the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Championships, Iowa Central Community College sophomore Tahir Chakisso made history, claiming four distance titles in the span of two days. Chakisso, a 22-year-old sophomore, won the 5000m, 3000m, mile, and 1000m, leaving his mark on the junior college scene and giving a glimpse of what's to come on the NCAA level.
A native of Eastern Ethiopia who moved to Portland, Ore., in 2007, Chakisso could be the next in a long line of junior college champions to move on and achieve success at the NCAA level. If his performance at the New Balance Track & Field Center at The Armory was any indication, something special is in store.
After traveling 22 hours by bus with his Iowa Central teammates, Chakisso arrived in New York City ready to race. With it being his first time in the Big Apple, Chakisso wanted to put on a show. That began on Friday by winning the 5000m in 15:10.51, 3000m in 8:32.51, and recording the fastest time in the 1000m prelims, 2:28.71.
Chakisso described day one as being a breeze, "just cruising" through each race, relying on his closing speed to claim victory.
Returning to the track on Saturday, Chakisso was motivated and ready to go. To open the day he'd win the mile in 4:10.91, chasing down an early front-runner and making the pass with 100 meters to go.
Falling to his knees past the line, Chakisso bent down and kissed the track.
"Last 200 meters I just kind of get blacked out. I give everything I got and leave everything on there. This is a famous world track, famous in the world and I wanted to do something special. It's a bit exciting, you know?" he'd say.
Chakisso would face his biggest test in his last race, the 1000 meter final. With the other finalists primarily fresh, Chakisso found himself towards the back early on. Moving into fourth with 400 meters to go, Chakisso was about to make a surge before getting boxed in along the rail.
Staying calm, he slowly moved up little by little. With less than a half lap of The Armory's 200 meter oval remaining, Chakisso pulled off a stunning move.
"Around 80 meters [left] I had to really go around, up and down [the track's banking]," he recalled, re-enacting the move with his hands. At that moment, he thought first place was gone and a silver medal was all he'd muster. "Then I took off."
Glaring at the video board, Chakisso saw his name pop up ahead of Oraine Wint's, 2:26.98 to 2:27.01. Throwing his arms up in jubilation, Chakisso had pulled off the quadruple. Running a victory lap, he'd soak in the fan's ovation.
"I was surprised, to be honest," he said. "We came here as a team, we come here to win a national championship as a team and not individually. I told my coach I'd do anything.
"To my knowledge, nobody did that [before]," he added, speaking of any athlete claiming four distance victories at these Championships. "It's an honor to compete here and it's special."
While his indoor season is now done, Chakisso's future is bright. Traditionally, the best junior college athletes move on to NCAA Division I or II schools after their sophomore seasons. Looking ahead, Chakisso is excited.
"I haven't decided where I am going to go. My goal is to finish school first before I make a move," he said. Keeping his options open, Chakisso hopes to follow some notable names to graduate from Junior College schools in recent memory. Names like Natoya Goule (last year's NCAA 800m champion), Arkansas Razorbacks All-Americans Stanley Kebenei and Kemoy Campbell, as well as former Arizona standout and current professional athlete Stephen Sambu.
"To be honest, I would be happy if I could follow in their footsteps," he said. "Some people look down on junior college competition-wise. But this is competitive. Everywhere you go is competitive; it's not going to get easy. But this is your stepping stone to build from here and learn."
What differentiates Chakisso from many other competitors is his work ethic and heart, says Iowa Central coach Dee Brown.
"He's just an amazing athlete. One of those kids that isn't just naturally talented but an extremely hard worker. Very big heart, lots of desire, and very competitive," said Brown. "We brought the idea of running those four events up and he said 'Of course! Sure!' He didn't even question it. 'I'll do that.' Unbelievable."
Brown added that he sees Chakisso making the greatest impact on the Division II level simply because of his age. But no matter where he runs, the school he represents is in for someone special.
"He's just getting better and better," said Brown. "He's got a bright future."
Another key quality that Chakisso brings to the table is his range. Chakisso is competitive from the 800 meters (an event which he could have competed in here at the Championships) to the half marathon (he won the NJCAA Half-Marathon title last fall in 1:06:11.48).
"The key is to just train hard and believe in yourself. That's the only thing. There's no secret, there's nothing special," he said. "Running is like not looking back. Just looking forward, going forward and keep moving. If you have a bad race you just have to focus on the future."
Chakisso said he is inspired by athletes like Ryan Hall, Haile Gebrselassie, and the Bekele brothers --Kenenisa and Tariku-- because they all believe in themselves. Chakisso has the confidence and competitiveness to excel no matter where or what level he competes at. According to statistics website All-Athletics.com, his personal bests stand at 14:28.89 for 5000m indoors and 30:11.84 for 10,000m.
Right now, though, Chakisso is focused on helping his team get better and better. Shortly after Iowa Central was awarded the NJCAA Championships trophy for finishing first, the team packed back into a bus and began the 22-hour drive back to Fort Dodge, Iowa. They'll drive through the night, getting back to campus in time for class on Monday.
"22 hours was the longest bus ride I have done in my life. When I came from Ethiopia to here, it was a nine hour flight," said Chakisso. "We come here to win and we are doing it. Outdoor we come back and win, that's the goal."
Iowa Central claimed the men's team title with ease, scoring 143 points -- double that of runner-ups Coffeyville CC and Colby CC (tied with 71 points). If Chakisso was his own one-man team, he'd place seventh overall with 40 points.
Next up is the outdoor track season.
"I've got to just go home and get back to training and start from the beginning," he said.
PHOTO: Iowa Central Community College sophomore Tahir Chakisso after winning four events at the 2014 National Junior College Athletic Association Indoor Championships in New York (Photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly).