May 25, 2011
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Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.
EUGENE, Ore. — The gunfire that starts Zeke Sayon’s sprint races for the University of Iowa is different than the gunfire he experienced growing up in Liberia.
It has been 13 years since Sayon crowded into a station wagon, leaving a small ocean side town in Liberia that was wrecked by civil conflict. He traveled through war-torn Ivory Coast and settled in a refugee camp in Ghana.
“The worst part was seeing dead bodies,” Sayon said. “Seeing someone you knew was alive moments ago. Being sick a lot and seeing people sick — your body seemed to get used to it over time; seeing people suffering.”
A military coup in 1980 in the western African country initiated a period of unrest leading to full-scale civil war in 1990. The warfare that raged from 1990 to 1997 and from 2001 to 2003 had a disastrous effect on Liberia’s economy, with many business people fleeing as rebels gained control of vast quantities of gold and diamonds.
Sayon was one of thousands to bolt.
“Every day we woke to gun shots. Buildings were riddled with bullet holes,” Sayon said. “There was no running water, no sewage system. To be blunt, beautiful white ocean sand covered in (human waste). The whole situation was going downhill so my parents made a decision to leave.”
Running is easy and life is easier now for Sayon, a senior, who will compete in an NCAA Preliminary Round 4×100-meter relay quarterfinal Saturday at 3:15 p.m. (CT) on Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. But life wasn’t always so calm. Sayon is now a permanent resident of the United States after spending his first nine years struggling to see the next sunrise.
“Every day we woke to gun shots. Buildings were riddled with bullet holes. There was no running water, no sewage system. To be blunt, beautiful white ocean sand covered in (human waste). The whole situation was going downhill so my parents made a decision to leave.”
UI senior sprinter
“My first thought isn’t how I’m going to find food or how I’m going to find drinking water,” Sayon said. “I’m just glad and I don’t take anything for granted. I get to run track at the University of Iowa, and I could have been dead.”
This is the third year Sayon has qualified for an NCAA preliminary. He owns season-bests of 10.62 in the 100-meter dash, 21.61 in the 200 and he runs the second leg of the 4×100 relay. A late-season hamstring injury will not keep him from competing in Eugene.
“I think we can get through it (in the 4×100),” Sayon said. “This is the last chance. I have one race to go to the next level.”
The next level is the NCAA Outdoor Championships on June 8-11 in Des Moines.
In 1998, an aunt in Champaign, Ill., sent for Sayon and his large family to relocate from Africa to the United States. The entire group lived in one bedroom.
“There were a lot of people in a little space,” Sayon recalls.
When Sayon’s father, Judele Kpor, arrived in Illinois with a second wave of family, they moved again, this time to Loves Park, Ill. Sayon stayed active by participating in soccer, but he soon tired of that sport. His first love was wrestling, which he picked up in seventh grade, but quit in high school because of shoulder injuries. He also dabbled with football and track.
As a sophomore, Sayon ran track to stay in shape for wrestling, but abruptly quit. A persistent coach pestered him until he rejoined the Harlem High School team a year later. Sayon became a conference champion and state qualifier. He competed in AAU and USTAF meets.
After high school, Sayon wanted to stay close to home and enrolled at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His sprints coach was UI alumnus Wayne Holloway, whose son, Warren, played football and ran track for the Hawkeyes.
After a year with the Flames, Sayon looked to move on. He worked 12 ½-hour night shifts at a bubble gum factory to pay rent. After work and before sleep, Sayon called and sent emails to prospective college coaches.
Joey Woody at the UI responded. In a span of four days, Sayon registered for classes, found a place to live, went to new-student orientation and attended his first classes as a Hawkeye.
“I wanted to go to a good school and still be able to run track,” Sayon said. “Seeing the team go from finishing seventh the year before I got here to moving up every year and now being Big Ten champs is something I’ll always remember.”
Sayon survived as a refugee with help of family; he excels at the UI because of his Hawkeye family and head coach Larry Wieczorek, who he calls a father figure.
“This is the only school where everybody on the team knows each other and people communicate freely,” Sayon said. “Other teams have little groups. It’s nice seeing people here helping other people out.”
Wieczorek motivates Sayon.
“He’s an energetic old guy, that’s all I can say,” Sayon said. “We call him the Wizard or the Silver Hawk. If we do a workout on the hill, he’ll run there and back. He makes you work harder because you see this old man running around and if he can do it, you can do it. It’s motivating.”
Sayon is studying mathematics (emphasis on economics) and will graduate in December. Once it is safe, he wants to return to Liberia.
“I’m planning on going back. To do what? I don’t know yet,” Sayon said. “I’m just as African as I am American.”
Gone — but not forgotten for Sayon — are days without refrigeration, putting chlorine tablets in creek water to bathe, drinking from the same holding tank used by people with malaria, cholera or tapeworms, and selling whatever his garden would produce to survive.
“We were poor, but I had my family with me and we stuck together and moved through the challenges,” Sayon said. “I was lucky.”
Sayon thinks he would have survived had he remained in Liberia, but he can’t be certain. A female cousin was among those lost.
“Lost. Gone. Dead,” Sayon said. “You saw a lot of bodies. As a kid you saw those things, but I don’t think about it now.”
Many of the competitors this weekend in Oregon will feel stress to run faster or throw further than ever before. For Sayon, these are stress-free times.
“I’m thankful for all the blessings I’ve gotten,” he said. “I don’t take things lightly. Every day when I wake up, I know it’s not as bad as it could have been. You don’t forget. I will never forget. Running’s easy. I have it better.”