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Oklahoma Student Athlete Spotlight: Abbabiya Simbassa
September 16, 2014
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By Candace Hinnergardt
Big 12 Campus Correspondent

In cross country, a runner will rack up miles and miles on the trails, but that’s nothing compared to the lengths University of Oklahoma senior Abbabiya “Biya” Simbassa has gone to get where he is today.

Throughout his lifetime, he has lived in two countries and four states and looking back says he was all over the place.

Simbassa put on the first miles of his journey in the horn of Africa in Asela, Ethiopia. Asela is a small town in south central Ethiopia of about 30,000 people, and for the majority of the people in Ethiopia, the only mode of transportation is their own two feet.

“Back in Ethiopia, I used to go to school about five miles total back and forth, just running,” Simbassa said. “You don’t want to be late to school, you know. You don’t have transportation or somebody to take you to school so that is the way you get to school on time.” 

While Simbassa was building his mileage running to and from school and for fun with friends, miles were also separating his family.

For part of Simbassa’s childhood, his father lived at a refugee camp in Kenya to escape oppression from the Ethiopian government. His father was gone for four years, and during that time, Simbassa’s mother raised him and his two younger brothers, Sabona and Naole, all by herself.

Life in Ethiopia, coupled with the absence of his father, made for a tough childhood. “You have to work hard to earn what you want,” Simbassa said. “Every day is a hard day. You see your mom work hard every day, too, to make you survive for the next day. In general, life is hard there.”

But then opportunity for a better life came knocking in the form of a sponsorship. In 2003, someone sponsored Simbassa’s father, which allowed him to travel to the United States to start a new life. In 2007, his father obtained a family visa that enabled Simbassa, his mother and his brothers to join him in Houston, Texas.

Miles away from Ethiopia, Simbassa and his family lived in Houston for the first two years they were in America, and even though America offered a much easier life, adjusting to a new culture and place presented its own challenges.

“It’s pretty tough,” Simbassa said. “Living-wise, it’s different. Life is different. In America, you’ve got everything you want, and also you’ve got to go to school.”

Only knowing the Oromo and Amharic languages when he came to Houston, Simbassa says the most challenging transition for him was learning the language. “When I came to America, I didn’t speak any English, and none of my family did, but I worked harder to get better and better.”

Though he says he is still not perfect at speaking English, Simbassa is now a fluent speaker. Teammate Alex Deir says he only seems to have problems understanding figures of speech.

“As I’m sure if anybody were to go to another country at the age of 13, it would be difficult to understand everything,” Deir said. “He does have some things that he needs clarification on, but he’s pretty independent for the most part.”

Despite the challenges that came with transitioning to a new country and culture, Simbassa couldn’t keep his feet planted in Texas for very long. After two years of living in Houston, Simbassa’s mom had to go to Iowa for a job with Tyson, and he tagged along.

“All my brothers stayed with my dad,” Simbassa said. “I felt that I should stay with my mom because I had lived with her for a long time and I didn’t want to leave her by herself in Iowa.”

For about a year, he lived with his mom in Sioux City, Iowa, and then in 2010, his aunt asked him to live with her in Bloomington, Minn.

While in Minnesota, he got his start in competitive running on the track team. It wasn’t until the next year when he moved back to live with his mother that he started running cross country.

Despite entering his senior year of high school without ever competing in cross country, he began to receive college offers to run. For his first two years of college, Simbassa ran at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge, Iowa. It was at Iowa Central that he met Deir, who had transferred from the University of North Carolina.

Associate head coach Jason Dunn was not part of the Oklahoma coaching staff that recruited Simbassa or Deir, but could tell from the beginning that Simbassa had potential for great success.

“It was just hard to really get a read on him as an athlete,” Dunn said. “I think what we saw last year was Biya sort of getting comfortable with the level at which he’s capable of competing at based on his hard work and his ability level.”

Since Simbassa has come to Oklahoma, he has placed no lower than 13th, and narrowly missed competing at nationals in 2013 by a tenth of a second.

Deir has also witnessed the great strides Simbassa has taken in becoming a better athlete.

“Since he’s come from Iowa Central to the University of Oklahoma, he’s made huge jumps, like unheard of jumps,” Dier said. “He’s gotten to be such a good athlete. He’s one of the hardest workers on our team and always brings a good attitude.”

As Simbassa nears the finish line of his collegiate career, he is unsure of the next race he will run. While he has accumulated many miles, all he can say is, “I didn’t think I’d get to go somewhere like OU,” and turn his running into a college degree.

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