Iowa sprinter knows real war

BY BEN SCHUFF | MAY 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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When Zeke Sayon runs on the track, he forgets everything.

He forgets the gunshots. He forgets the refugee camp. He forgets the lack of water as a child.

"The track is my sanctuary," Sayon said.

Sayon was born in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1989. When a civil war threatened the country in 1996, Sayon and his family — including six kids — fled to Buduburam, a refugee camp in Ghana.

Those times created memories that erased almost everything from before the war.

"The day the war started, I remember mom waking us up," he said. "All you could hear in the background was gunshots. You never forget the sound of an AK-47 or mortar rounds going off."

At ages 7 and 8, Sayon attended school that was less than adequate. Basic necessities such as desks for students weren't available. School lunches almost never occurred. He said the only time they ate at school was when missionary-type workers arrived with beans and rice.

Sayon and his siblings could count on only one meal a day — rice in the morning that was shared among everyone.

Just to take a shower, he had to get water from a lake. Then, he would have to pour chlorine into the bucket and "watch the filth settle to the bottom."

"Growing up in a refugee camp is something else," Sayon said. "It's hard to explain to somebody the [lack] of food or how water was scarce or bad.

"Just using the restroom was a hassle. You had to go to this dump area or pay to use the restroom."

Several illnesses, such as tapeworms, were common in people in the camp. People's stomachs swelled as they suffered from malnutrition. "My stomach was huge," Sayon said.

Feeling fortunate to survive, Sayon moved with his family to Champaign, Ill., when he was 9. Initially, he lived at his aunt's house in one small room with five other family members.

The family bounced around to a number of apartment complexes and finally settled in Rockford, Ill.
Sayon spent his first year of college running at the University of Illinois-Chicago. But feeling like he didn't fit in or see eye-to-eye with the coaches about school, the 21-year-old transferred to Iowa.

Assistant coach Joey Woody made a key connection with Sayon while he was considering schools to transfer to. Now, Woody said, Sayon is someone the team looks for leadership for reasons other than his track abilities.

"One thing about Zeke is he does everything he needs to take care of business," Woody said. "He knows how to live on little means to make his dreams come true."

Now one of three captains for the track and field team, the senior receives a half-scholarship to run for Iowa. To cover the remaining costs, he has worked 12-hour days at a bubble-gum factory for two summers. All that while still training for track.

Head coach Larry Wieczorek said he's particularly impressed with Sayon's maturity level.

"Sometimes, we recruit high-school boys, and they leave the program after four years still boys," Wieczorek said. "Zeke is a man. I would trust him with my life."

Still living his own, Sayon knows he's a blessed individual. He is set to graduate next winter with a degree in mathematics.

"I don't stress about things anymore, because there is nothing that can hurt me. I've escaped it," he said and paused. "I'm alive. All those diseases, tuberculosis, malaria, cholera, AIDS, were going rampant. War itself, bullets — all that missed me."

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