Late-arriving Bahati thriving in long run for Clark

Sometimes one sport’s loss is another’s gain.

After missing tryouts for Valley’s soccer team as a sophomore, Basabose Bahati decided to join the track team. Fast forward two years, and he is one of the state’s top distance runners as a senior at Clark.

Bahati’s quick rise in track and cross country should come as no surprise, considering the adversity he overcame before he came to the United States.

When Bahati was 7 years old, he and his family, including six siblings, packed what little they had and moved to a quieter area in rural Congo in hopes of freeing themselves from an oppressive government and warring tribes that had been harassing their way of life.

“We traveled at night,” Bahati said. “We had to. We didn’t want to be seen or attacked, or even slaughtered, by an aggressive tribe.”

His family made the treacherous journey unscathed, but not all of his tribe was so lucky. Nor was the Bahati family after arriving at its new destination.

“We considered ourselves extremely fortunate if we could find one meal a day, and some days I didn’t eat at all,” Bahati said. “But it was tough, because my father was in Ethiopia trying to find a doctor to treat my brother for his medical ailments, so we were sort of on our own.”

Instead of going to school, which is expected of any 7-year-old here but not in the Congo, Bahati stayed home and helped tend to the cows while doing his best to provide for his younger brothers and sister, attending classes when he could.

But just before Bahati’s eighth birthday, his father was able to arrange passage to Kenya, where a safer, more stable situation awaited the family. Also, Bahati’s father found a sponsor that allowed them to remain in Kenya, giving Bahati his first opportunity at a bona fide education.

“But I still wasn’t running,” he said. “I was chasing a ball, you know, playing (soccer). I loved the physical exertion, and was out there every day after my studies and chores. But running for fun was still the farthest thing from my mind.

“Water, like food, was so scarce — I don’t know if I would want to even run for sport. Our nutrition was horrible, and I feared for my life if I took up running.”

His fluency in English resulted from the strict education he received in Kenya. While his English isn’t perfect, it came to good use when his family moved to Las Vegas.

Yet as a freshman, he still wasn’t running.

“By 10th grade I noticed I was gaining a lot of weight, not being used to eat what I wanted when I wanted,” Bahati said. “I got spoiled, it really got to me — having food whenever I was hungry. And I was too late to try out for (soccer), so I knew I had to do something.”

One afternoon, Bahati was walking through the hallway at Valley High when he saw a poster with an athlete sprinting on it. It read: “Come see coach if you want to run track.”

He did.

He recalled his first race, shaking his head in disgust: “It was the 1,600, and I just ran as fast as I could like it were one quick sprint,” he said. “At the end I couldn’t move anything. I could barely breathe. I felt like my insides were dying. Shutting down. And I remember losing badly, thinking to myself: I can beat these kids, but not if I run like this. I need to learn.”

He went home and stayed up all night watching YouTube clips of 1,500-meter world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco.

“I watched his races over and over again,” Bahati said. “And I read everything I could about him. I was determined to learn, even if it meant teaching myself.”

Bahati still watches clips of Olympic-caliber athletes, focusing on form, when they kick, and other strategies, as well as working closely with Clark coach Christian Svendsen.

Whatever Bahati has been doing has worked. As a junior, he broke the Clark record in the 1,600 meters with a time of 4 minutes, 21.36 seconds.

At this year’s Las Vegas Invitational cross country meet, it took a desperation leap by reigning Class 4A state champion Nick Hartle of Centennial to steal the race after Bahati led comfortably for the last mile.

But while Bahati would love to be among the best to ever run in Nevada, and he knows he has to go through Hartle to accomplish that, his real goal lies five years from now.

“In 2016, I’ll be running in the Olympics,” he said.