Georgia Tech distance runner Nahom Solomon finished 22nd at the NCAA cross-country championships last November in Louisville, Ky.
Photo: GT Athletics
Photo: GT Athletics

The unlikely greatness of Tech distance runner Nahom Solomon

Nahom Solomon is grateful, and he has reason to be. On his life’s course, decisions and turns – some of them his own, some beyond his control – have led him to the highest tier of Georgia Tech’s distance-running realm. A senior, he will graduate in May with a computer-engineering degree and will have competitive eligibility that will enable him to earn a master’s.

“So there’s not a day goes by, I always think about the people who got me here,” Solomon said. “At some point, I make an effort to thank every single one of those guys – every single person I’ve met since college, everybody who I knew back home (who) put me on this path, so I just thank everything that’s happened up to this point.”

At the same time, Solomon did not earn All-American honors in cross country last fall – just the second Yellow Jacket to win that distinction in school history – or chase down the school record in the indoor 3,000 meters fueled only on fate and goodwill.

“There was nothing projecting that Nahom was going to become what he has,” Tech cross-country coach Alan Drosky said. “Just hard work, obviously talent and a huge belief in himself. That might be the story of Nahom – just the power of your self-confidence and your belief in yourself.”

He continued his excellence Friday night, breaking a school record in the indoor 5,000 meters at the ACC championships at Clemson. Solomon finished fourth in 13 minutes, 59.71 seconds, eclipsing the 15-year-old school record (held by Kyle Rabbitt) by almost 15 seconds.

Most notably, he finished eighth in the ACC cross-country championship in October, finished 22nd at the NCAA championship (highest finish in school history) in November and then was named the ACC scholar-athlete of the year for cross country, another first for Tech in the sport.

“I never thought, when he was a freshman, This is a guy that’s going to finish the highest of anybody we’d ever had at cross-country nationals,” Drosky said.

To go back a few steps, the doubt certainly was mutual. When he was a freshman at Shiloh High, Solomon intended to play soccer in the spring after running cross country in the fall. A friend encouraged him to join him for what he said was soccer conditioning workouts. Some time later, another student mentioned goal times for the coming track season. Solomon had been duped and said he was “really, really annoyed,” but ended up staying with track.

“Let me just say I learned to not be gullible after that,” said Solomon, who still is close friends with his bamboozler. “I don’t mind it, looking back at all the success I’ve had, but I still don’t like being tricked.”

As a high-school senior, Solomon wasn’t uncertain about running in college. He finished 10th at the Class AAAAAA state high-school championship. He met Drosky there, Solomon said, “and he didn’t look like he wanted to give me the time of day.” His times were borderline, but his mentality and lean frame led Drosky to give him a spot.

At Tech, Solomon was a contributor for his first three years but hardly a star. He did not lack for ambition, however.

“He always had a lot of confidence in his potential and ability beyond where he was currently at the time,” Drosky said.

A couple of things happened. As a junior, he began to eat better and take better care of his body, heeding the advice of athletic department dietitian Leah Thomas. Last summer, for the second year in a row, he interned with Intel, which has a design center in Fort Collins, Colo., which also happens to be home of Colorado State and its top-25 cross-country team. Reaching out to team members through Facebook, Solomon trained over the summer with Rams runners at altitude all summer.

“What a nice coincidence,” Solomon said. “Did not plan it that way, but it worked out.”

It is not every college student that lands internships at Intel, the giant in the processor industry. Solomon has been pointed in that direction since the age of nine, he said. That’s when he decided he wanted to be a computer engineer, based on an interest in programming machines and robotics. He has an ambition to re-create the suit from Iron Man, the robotic exoskeleton worn by the comic book superhero.

“Pretty sure the military’s already on its way with that, but it’d be cool to be that guy,” said Solomon, who carries a 3.75 GPA.

Returned from Fort Collins, Solomon compiled a season unseen at Tech in the past two decades. He became Tech’s second male runner to earn All-America in cross country and seventh to earn All-ACC. He ran with a to-the-front style, perhaps best evidenced in the ACC championship, when he shot to the lead for the first three miles of the 8-kilometer (5 miles) race.

“I knew he wanted to have a strong race and run aggressively, but not the idea that he was going to be leading the whole conference by 50 yards,” Drosky said.

He hung in to finish fourth in 23:21.2, eight seconds behind the winner, Justyn Knight of Syracuse. The prior year, Solomon had finished 1:25 behind Knight in the same race. Earning All-America status at the NCAA championships was gravy.

Going forward, he has two more school records in sight, wants to make nationals in indoor and outdoor track and earn All-American status in cross country and indoor and outdoor track. It would earn him an undisputed place as Tech’s greatest long-distance runner. Not a bad possibility for someone who had to be tricked into running in high school, a reality that hasn’t escaped him.

“Who knows what could have happened back in my freshman year had I said, ‘No, I’m not going to go to conditioning’ or ‘I don’t believe you’ or who knows what could have happened had Coach Drosky not extended an invitation to me and then an opportunity,” Solomon said.

Solomon’s serendipitous journey traces back even further. His wrote in an essay for the Tech website that his parents fled Eritrea as refugees, meeting in the U.S. after their arrival. He is the oldest of four.

Once not interested in running collegiately, he’s considering the possibility of running post-college. If not, there’s always the Iron Man suit.

“This fall, he made me a believer,” Drosky said. “And so where he takes it from here, not that I ever really doubted Nahom, but he’s in his command of his running, his efforts, his training. And if he says he can do it, then I think he can do it.”