A shepherd in Ethiopia, Izaiah Steury was adopted by a family in Indiana and has a chance to be one of the best distance runners in the state. Indianapolis Star
ANGOLA — Until four years ago, the running he did was to chase sheep and goats in the highlands of East Africa. He threw rocks at hyenas to protect livestock belonging to his family.
He was a shepherd at age 5.
He grew up in a mud hut without electricity or telephone. He shared a bed with a goat, and in the morning he had to clean off the goat pellets.
In an odyssey of biblical proportions, he bounced among relatives and orphanages, winding up in the northeast corner of Indiana. Only then did he learn about the running legacy of his native Ethiopia. Only now is he following in those spikeprints.
Izaiah Steury, an 18-year-old junior at Angola, has emerged not only as one of Indiana’s best high school distance runners; he is among America’s top teens.
Coincidentally, it was 60 years ago this month that Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila won the marathon at Rome and became the first Black African to win an Olympic gold medal. State and national records are in Izaiah’s sights, the Olympic Games in his dreams.
“I’m still shocked, to this day,” he said.
Move 7,600 miles away from his birthplace? Learn a new language?
After what he had endured, a 12-mile run was nothing.
“So many bad things can happen to you,” Izaiah said. “But then I realized there’s always a good part, and God has a plan in every step of it.”
A new life in Indiana
He was adopted by an Indiana couple in 2013. Leroy and Tammy Steury, who already had four children, made the arrangements through America World, an organization based in McLean, Va., that places international orphans into Christian homes. In 2018, Ethiopia banned adoption of children by foreign citizens.
Sbhat was Izaiah’s given name, meaning “praise to the father,” from the ancient language of Ge’ez. He grew up near the town of Abi Addi at an elevation of 6,400 feet. Ethiopia, the oldest independent nation in Africa, has never been colonized. But the country of 109 million is one of the world’s 20 poorest, according to the World Bank.
Izaiah recalled working sunrise to sunset tending to sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys and chickens. His stepfather worked on corn and wheat crops. Izaiah struggled in school because he was there so infrequently.
He said his father left when he was born. The son never saw him — not even a photograph.
“Don’t even know his name,” Izaiah said.
Yet he was content. He had a routine. While the livestock grazed, he played with friends. At nightfall, the animals headed home because they knew the way.
Except for one night some did not. The little shepherd went after them. In the darkness, the hyenas came out. They bit two donkeys, killing a baby donkey.
Izaiah was scared. Not of the hyenas. Of his stepfather. So he stayed out all night.
He said his parents understood, knew he was sorry. Life resumed as normal.
It stayed that way until his mother returned from a trip to visit his older sister, who was giving birth to a first child. When his mother arrived home, though, she was desperately ill. She could not move.
“All we could do was just open her mouth and give her something to drink,” Izaiah said.
The night she died, mourners of their Ethiopian Orthodox Church sang until morning. He was too young to be allowed at the funeral.
He went from one home to another, seeking a family that would care for him.
His stepfather remarried, and Izaiah had a poor relationship with his new stepmother and her younger son. One day, the boys nearly clashed, and Izaiah said he was injured when his stepfather threw him against the wall. He said his stepparents threw rocks at him and held him out of school. Some days, he simply stayed away.
“I cried like every single day, rolling on the floor,” he said.
He went to live with an aunt, but the uncle would not let him stay. He was going to live with his older sister, Kiros, but she already had two children to support. “Jobs are very hard to get,” Izaiah said.
So it was off to another aunt. He was a shepherd again, and he attended night school. But he “said ‘no’ to something” one night, and his uncle broke sticks over his back in a beating.
“I cried, took my stuff, and left,” he said.
He tried to remember the route back to his sister’s house. A friend offered to go with him, and they walked for two hours. Finally, he saw a bicycle shop he recognized. Kiros’ home was nearby, and brother reunited with sister.
The 8-year-old could not stay long. There was not enough money, not enough food. He remembers his sister filing out the paperwork to send him to a government orphanage.
“At that time, I knew what was happening, but I wasn’t angry, really,” he said. “Because I knew that was probably the best opportunity for me. So I wasn’t going to complain.”
No complaints at the first orphanage, where he stayed about a year, and especially not at the second.
A cook there took an interest in him, making him feel special. One day a week, the children could watch black-and-white TV, eat doughnuts or chocolate, and choose between Coke and Fanta.
“That was our favorite day, always,” Izaiah said.
Still, it was an adjustment. Ethiopia has 83 languages and 20 dialects. Izaiah spoke Tigrigna. The other children spoke Amharic. Sometimes the boy found himself speaking a mangled combination of both, and was teased.
He’d never heard of America
In Indiana, the Steurys were eager to adopt a child from another country. They had been involved in missions, including seven months in which they lived in Haiti. They thought any addition would be a Haitian baby.
The Steurys were connected to America World through Angola’s SonLight Community Church. They agreed to host an Ethiopian child for four weeks in 2012, with the possibility of adopting the child themselves or finding a suitable family elsewhere. The world “adoption” was not to be spoken around the child.
Izaiah had not only never been on an airplane, he did not know what an airplane was. Nor had he heard of America.
By himself, he took a flight from Addis Ababa to Washington, D.C., and from there to Indianapolis. A flight attendant helped the 9-year-old change planes. When he got off the plane . . .
“He called us Mom and Dad immediately,” Tammy Steury said.
That was inexplicable because Izaiah did not speak English nor know adoption was a possibility. But a boy can dream.
Leroy Steury said the decision to add a fifth child was easy.
“I knew right away,” said Micah, one of the Steurys’ two sons, age 6 at the time.
Not that anything was easy. Izaiah returned to Ethiopia and had to move again, this time to a transition home, effectively another orphanage.
To complete the adoption, the 11-year-old became a U.S. citizen. For that, he had to have a formal birth year, and a physician who X-rayed his hand determined it was 2002. Finally, he was asked if he wanted a new name.
“You know what? We should change it because I felt like I was different,” he said. “I didn’t want to be the weird one in class. ‘Hey, Sbhat!’”
Leroy Steury suggested Izaiah, an Americanized respelling of Isaiah, a major prophet of the Hebrew Bible and Old Testament. The name comes from Hebrew, meaning “God is salvation.”
So Izaiah relocated from rural Ethiopia to rural Indiana. The Steurys live on a 1,300-acre property outside Pleasant Lake, where the father owns a homebuilding company and raises 400 head of cattle.
Izaiah began in the second-grade classroom of Micah, who said Izaiah was the only Black student at Pleasant Lake Elementary School. His new parents were assured he would pick up English within six months
“I was like, ‘No way,’” Tammy Steury said.
She was still learning about her new son and how motivated he was. Not only did he learn a new language in six months, he speaks without an accent. He might mix up words now and then — to the amusement of his family — but he was open about his past.
Inevitably, there were squabbles with four siblings: Madison, now 20, a senior at University of Southern Indiana; Kylie, 18, a freshman at University of St. Francis; Zach, 16, a junior in high school, and Micah, 14, a freshman.
“Two months into it, we’re like, ‘Oh man, what did we get ourselves into?’” the father said. “But we moved past it.”
Izaiah was moving, and growing, fast. Midway through second grade, he was promoted to fourth. Improbably, he was a straight-A student. His mother was constantly purchasing new jeans because he would need the next size after a few weeks.
Izaiah missed the goats, so the Steurys bought him some. Recently, the goats were sold. A new love took their place.
Didn’t like running
The Steurys are a stick-and-ball sports family: Madison, softball; Kylie, soccer; Zach, baseball and starting center in football; Micah, baseball and quarterback of the freshman football team.
In sixth grade, Izaiah went out for soccer, a sport that didn’t resemble what he played in Ethiopia. There, the ball was strips of cloth wrapped together.
Turns out Izaiah did not like soccer. He did not like all the running.
So he was incredulous when a friend, Marcus Miller, urged him to go out for cross-country in seventh grade. Marcus’ father, Brian, was then the middle-school cross-country coach.
Izaiah agreed to give it a try. In his first race, he finished 21st.
“That’s pretty bad,” he conceded. “But I thought it was awesome.”
That was the 160-pound Izaiah, not the 130-pound runner. Angola’s football coaches wanted him.
If being East African and living at high altitude were all it took, Izaiah would have been better sooner. He is not ethnic Oromo, as Ethiopian greats Bikila, Mamo Wolde, Haile Gebrselassie and Kenenisa Bekele are. He is from the Tigray region, birthplace of Miruts Yifter, the gold medalist at 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Angola coach Brad Peterson bristles at suggestions Izaiah has excelled merely because of genetics. The coach said it has taken years, and miles.
“He’s failed a lot,” Peterson said.
Peterson, 45, a fourth-year Angola coach, has been devoted to Izaiah’s development. The coach is the son of Barrie Peterson, who coached runners in Fort Wayne for four decades.
Brad Peterson has coached champions at NAIA colleges and in high school. Notable proteges are Concordia Lutheran’s Alissa McKaig, a 2:32 marathoner who was eighth at the 2012 Olympic Trials, and Northrop miler Brett Tipton, a two-time state champion who ran 800 meters in 1:51.
“I never thought I’d have another Brett Tipton. Izaiah’s better,” Peterson said.
After Izaiah built momentum, he improved rapidly.
In eighth grade, he was 38th in the middle-school state cross-country meet. In ninth grade, he was 38th at high school state. In eighth, he ran a 5:23 mile. In ninth, 4:23.
As a sophomore, he was seventh in state cross-country. When he ran 3,200 meters in 9:11.88 indoors in mid-February, that was a eureka moment.
“Right when we got excited,” Peterson said, “the season got canceled.”
Track meets shut down. Izaiah did not.
Quarantine allowed his weekly mileage to increase to 70. On summer days, he arose at 5:30, ran 10 or more miles and then spent the workday laboring for his father’s homebuilding company. He entered a virtual half-marathon and, by himself, ran the 13.1 miles in 1 hour, 12 minutes on Steuben County roads.
“I definitely want to be the person who wants it the most,” he said.
He tested his fitness in hastily scheduled August track meets.
He won a 4:14.72 mile at Chicago and finished second in a 3,200 meters in 8:57.17 at Nashville, Tennessee. The latter is No. 5 in the nation among non-seniors in 2020. He affirmed that ranking with a 14:51.1 for 5,000-meter cross-country — No. 3 nationally among high schoolers— at Marion on Sept. 5.
By contrast, Cathedral’s Cole Hocker, a 2018 national champion in cross-country, never ran a 5K under 15 minutes.
‘I love standing out’
Izaiah has become comfortable in his own skin, even if there are so few around here like him.
“I love standing out,” he said. “If I’m the only guy that looks like me, amen to that. Most meets that I go to, I look down the line, I’m the only brother in town. That’s OK.”
Without seeking popularity at school, he found it. Youth culture is not what it was in Ethiopia, but Izaiah transitioned.
“Humblest guy I know,” said Alex Burney, an Angola teammate. “Never speaks bad about anything or anybody. He’s always looking for the best in people. I’ve never heard him cuss.”
Izaiah earned his driver’s license and transports himself to school in his own 1998 Dodge Durango. (He did need hours to learn parallel parking and used to drive at night with only his parking lights.)
Expressions like “dude,” “holy crap” and “stuff happens” belong to his vocabulary. He irritates his siblings with loud music and occasionally argues with his parents. The Steurys call him “a great kid” who had a sound upbringing. He was baptized last year at Pleasant Lake Mennonite Church.
“He’s a typical American teenager now,” Tammy Steury said.
Two years ago, Izaiah and Leroy Steury traveled to Ethiopia, where they visited Izaiah’s childhood hut and met the families of his stepfather and sister. The stepfather wept when he saw the teen he knew as Sbhat. Izaiah finally saw his mother’s grave.
“I really wanted to know where she was,” he said.
Izaiah stays connected to his native land through music CDs, an authentic Ethiopian restaurant in Fort Wayne and Facebook messages to a brother-in-law who owns a laptop.
“I’m proud to be Ethiopian,” Izaiah said. “I’m proud to be who I am today. And God has given me so much strength through everything.”
Titles, records, medals
On this late-summer afternoon, Izaiah has a workout separate from Angola teammates. Temperature is 98 degrees, humidity 47%.
Izaiah is running five miles over a hilly 1,200-meter blacktop course at Commons Park, next to the middle school. It is 600 meters down, 600 back, at an increasingly faster tempo. Pacing him is Matt Kimbrell, a former Indiana Tech runner. Except Kimbrell has to sit out some of the 1,200s.
Izaiah is supposed to run the first two 1,200s in 4:30 and 4:25. Instead, he hits 4:15 and 4:13. He goes successively faster, closing with an 800 in 2:24. Total time is 26:56, two minutes faster than this same workout a year ago.
It would be robotic, except robots don’t move this elegantly and must stop. Izaiah never stops.
“He glides. I’ve never seen anything like it,” is the way 2:18 marathoner Matt Blume put it.
If Izaiah has a talent, Peterson said, it is that he “loves the grind of it.” There is scant evidence of innate speed: 800-meter best of 1:56, 400 in 52 seconds. Those are ordinary times, even in Indiana.
“Somebody the other day asked me: ‘When has he had a bad day?’ “ Peterson said. “And I was like, ‘He hasn’t.’ He literally has not had a bad workout.”
It would be premature to label Izaiah Steury as The Next Big Thing, even as he strides toward that. He turns 20 in February 2022 and will thus be ineligible that spring. June 4, 2021, would be his last shot at a state track title.
He aims at the 3,200-meter state record of 8:47.75 that has stood since 2011. That record is held by North Central’s Futsum Zienasellassie, who was born in Eritrea, bordering the region of Izaiah’s birthplace.
Izaiah will be among the favorites, although not a certainty, to win his first state cross-country title Oct. 31 at Terre Haute. Then he will try to join Hocker and Zienasellassie as a national champion, if the pandemic doesn’t cancel a San Diego race.
Izaiah is hearing from college recruiters, who envision him as a 10,000-meter runner. Olympic medals? He is motivated by such goals, and by Ethiopians who have ascended that podium.
“I’m excited to see what’s ahead. I don’t know,” he said. “The future has a lot of big things. I’m ready to unveil them.”
Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.
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