APEX — Ethiopian-born Mihret Coulter and his sister Tsion understood their biological father’s wishes when Kevin and Sarah Coulter adopted them through an international service and brought them home to Holly Springs six years ago.
Their ill-and-aging father, Tsegaye, feared he could no longer provide for them after their mother died when they were young. He instructed them to study hard and take advantage of their new life in America; they were quick to embrace school.
“The teachers are great here,” said Mihret, an Apex High senior. “They make learning fun. I’m very grateful and don’t take anything for granted.”
Mihret has been accepted to North Carolina, but he’s quick to praise his sister, an Apex freshman who runs on the track team with him. “I can’t say this to her face, but she is a very smart young lady.”
He will attempt to qualify for the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A track and field championships during the 4A Mideast Regional on Saturday at Apex.
Mihret has been invited to join the Tar Heels’ cross country and track teams as a walk-on.
Coulter arrived in America as a 13-year-old with a passion for soccer. Playing on dusty fields of Addis Ababa with makeshift soccer balls didn’t dull his enthusiasm.
“We made a ball out of plastic bags rolled around fruits like oranges or lemons,” Coulter said. “Balls were too expensive.”
But his stride was too obvious to miss. When the new Coulter family walked to a nearby swimming pool, Mihret challenged Kevin Coulter to a race.
“He said I should try running, but I said no,” Mihret said. “I couldn’t let go of soccer.”
He stuck with soccer throughout seventh and eighth grades and in high school when it conflicted with cross country as a fall sport. He ran track in the spring as a freshman and sophomore, but his motivation was to stay in shape for soccer.
Mihret, it’s clear, doesn’t change tastes easily. Sarah Coulter studied Ethiopian cookbooks and shopped at Al Madina in Raleigh.
“I still don’t like American food,” Mihret said, shaking his head.
Midway through his sophomore track season he recognized his talent. He gave up soccer and tested himself in cross country as a junior. Last fall Coulter was the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference cross country individual champion and last week he won conference track titles in the 1,600 and 3,200.
Now the 5-foot-10, 135-pounder’s track success is catching up. He established a personal record at the Bojangles’ Apex Lions Relays with a time of 4 minutes, 19.36 seconds. He placed third to North Raleigh Christian Academy’s Ryan Speer, who won with a state-leading mark of 4:15.06.
“A lot of kids discover the sport they originally loved is not actually their best sport,” said Roy Cooper, Apex’s cross country and track coach. “As he’s gravitated toward running, he has found himself. He has great upside in college; the reason is the races are longer.”
Mihret’s former passion for soccer isn’t unusual. Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi, whose East Africa homeland of Eritrea borders Ethiopia, loved soccer until his family moved to San Diego.
“Meb is an inspiration,” Mihret said.
Two others he admires are Ethiopia’s famed Bekele brothers, Kenenisa and Tariku. They’ve combined to claim five Olympic medals in distance events. Last summer Mehrit had a chance to train with the Bekele brothers in the high elevation of Entoto Mountain.
Kevin and Sarah have respected their children’s heritage with homecoming trips. When Sarah had a baby 10 months after the previously childless couple adopted Mihret and Tsion, they named their newborn son Ezra Tsegaye Coulter, using the middle name of their adopted children’s father.
Upon Mihret’s North Carolina acceptance, he phoned his father and explained UNC’s prestige in his native language of Ahmaric. Tsegaye might not have fully understood, but he responded with the same advice as six years ago: “Edilun tetekembet.”
Translation: “You better take advantage of it.”