There’s a new runner in town.
His name is Dereje Himbago and the Redmond High Mustangs feel fortunate to have the sophomore speedster on board their cross country squad.
“I think it’s really great that we have him, we’re very lucky to get him. More than just a teammate, he’s a really good friend,” said RHS senior George Cretu.
Originally from Ethiopia, the 16-year-old harrier spent the last three years making a name for himself on the running scene in Oklahoma. People have quickly gotten to know his name in Redmond, where he’s been living the last two months with his family and stamping his footprints all over cross country courses.
On Sept. 19 at Hartman Park, Himbago got the crowd cheering while he traversed the 5K course and won the 4A KingCo race versus Newport and Woodinville with a time of 16 minutes, 9 seconds. Mustang junior Cooper Arons was right on Himbago’s back and finished second in 16:10.
“I’m really excited to be here and it’s gonna be a great season,” said Himbago, who’s quick to note that the people he’s met at school and in the community have been supportive of him since his family moved here. “Hopefully things will go well and I’ll do some great things.”
Arons and Cretu (who tied for third in 16:29) believe that Himbago’s time on Sept. 19 is a Hartman course record. Himbago achieved his personal best mark of 15:34 last year for Guymon High while winning his age division at the Cross Country Coaches National Youth Championship. He also won the 5A state individual title and helped guide his squad to the team championship.
On the track front, Himbago earned PRs at the Oklahoma Meet of Champions with a first-place finish in the 3,200 meters (9:39) and a second in the 1,600 meters (4:25). The former soccer player plans to run track for the Mustangs this spring as well.
“Dereje is a fine young man, very nice and personal, and he is a talented runner,” said RHS boys coach Denis Villeneuve. “He is mature and strong for a sophomore and he has a very strong work ethic. He has worked hard his whole life and he appreciates the important things in life.”
Himbago’s dad moved from Ethiopia to Alabama in 2010 to make a better life, Villeneuve said. The rest of the family followed four years later and they first moved to Oklahoma and then to Seattle in 2017 to find better jobs. Himbago remained in Oklahoma last year and stayed with a foster mom while attending school and running with his friends.
Himbago began training with the Mustangs over the summer and is soaking up the local flavor.
“Everything is very nice, a little bit rainy. In Oklahoma, it’s pretty hot there. A lot of places to run, lots of trails out here,” said Himbago, whose sister is a senior at RHS and he also has two younger sisters and two little brothers attending local schools. “It’s a very great team, all the runners and all the coaches, they’re really nice.”
Arons said that Himbago has become a key member of the Mustang squad in a short time.
“He pushes everyone on the team to run their hardest at every practice and every race. He basically just runs hard every time,” he said. “It’s helped us improve a lot in this offseason and during the season.”
Arons added that running neck and neck with Himbago on Sept. 19 was one of the best moments he’s ever had on a course.
Cretu feels that all the boys — who were 3-0 at press time — are pushing each other during their workouts. It’s a like-minded Mustang crew who wants to do exponentially better and it’s shown this season, he added.
“If I don’t run every day, I feel really bored,” said Himbago with a laugh. “Competing with other people and work hard all season and you’ll get the results.”
As a seventh-grader, Himbago’s eyes were drawn to some runners on the track in Oklahoma. The coach noticed the youngster and asked if wanted to give it a go.
“I said, ‘OK, sure, why not?’” Himbago said with a smile.
Himbago didn’t know what to expect the next morning at training. The coach gave him some shoes and told him to run, and off he went — fast.
“He told me to come every morning and I just keep getting better and better and better,” he said.
• PRs and season records were aplenty for the Mustangs at last Saturday’s Bellevue Cross Country Invitational at Lake Sammamish State Park. Himbago finished second in 15:46, Arons took fourth in 15:46.7 and Cretu nailed a 16:29.
• On the Redmond girls’ side against Newport and Woodinville, sophomore Chloe Connolly took second in 19:50. Mustang sophomore Lili Hargreaves and junior Lauren Lehr finished tied for fifth in 20:07. The Mustangs were 2-1 at press time.