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From refugee to All-American, track's Wellington Zaza overcomes hurdles
Wellington Zaza survived civil war in Liberia to become an All-American at Auburn.
Feb. 6, 2017

By Jeff Shearer

AUBURN, Ala. - Wellington Zaza relied on two instructors to teach him the language of his new home in America: Barney and SpongeBob.

"That's how I learned English," said Zaza, who spoke the Krahn dialect growing up in Liberia. "I would imitate every word they would say. And I finally learned it."

A senior on Auburn's track and field team, Zaza's 60-meter hurdles time, 7.81, is the third fastest in school history.

The hurdles he clears on the track cannot compare to those he overcame as a boy in Africa.

When Zaza was 4 years old, his mother fled Liberia's second Civil War, seeking refuge in the U.S., with hopes of bringing her children later.

"I was 4 to 5," he said. "She left us in there. We fled to the Ivory Coast, in and out of refugee camps. Trying to avoid the war at any cost."

Wellington's father, a political prisoner for eight years, was arrested after serving as chief of staff of Liberia's previous president, Samuel Doe.

"With him being tortured in prison, and my mother fleeing the country, leaving us to try to escape through refugee camps and running through the woods in Africa, it was a scary moment," Zaza said. "But I think it helped me with my survival skills a lot."

For more than two years, Zaza relied on those survival skills, hoping his mother would return. When his grandmother died, he says he was left alone.

"At 6, going on 7, I finally heard from my mother," Zaza said. "It was like the happiest moment of my life. When we finally got a call, she said, `You guys are coming.'"

Arriving in Philadelphia, Zaza promptly spent two months in the hospital, suffering from the flu. It was there where he first heard his new purple tutor.

"I watched Barney every single day, and tried to imitate Barney on what he was saying," Zaza said. "And SpongeBob also. It helped me learn English very fast."



<em> Zaza's time in the 60-meter hurdles, 7.81 seconds, is the third best in Auburn history.</em>
Zaza's time in the 60-meter hurdles, 7.81 seconds, is the third best in Auburn history.

'I felt the love'

Zaza's learning skills weren't his only fast attribute. His running and jumping abilities helped Zaza earn a scholarship to a junior college in Arizona. His times there attracted Auburn's attention.

A recruiting visit in 2014, coinciding with Auburn's football game against LSU, confirmed Zaza's future destination.

"I got on the field and looked around. Everyone was chanting. I thought, `Yeah. This is it.' I felt the love," he said. "I felt the tradition. And most importantly, I just felt at home."

Auburn was the first of five scheduled recruiting visits.

"When I came to Auburn, I was like, `yeah, cancel all of my other visits. I'm coming to Auburn,'" he said.

Prior to the trip, Zaza says Cam Newton was the extent of his Auburn knowledge. When he met a fellow Pennsylvanian triple jumper on Auburn's track team, Marshay Ryan, Zaza had his role model.

"I figured if she can settle down in Auburn, I think I could do it, because it's two different dynamics, Philadelphia and here in Alabama," Zaza said. "It's everything I thought it would be as far as the academics. I knew it was going to be a little bit challenging. I like challenges."

In addition to his Auburn coaches, Zaza relies on video instructors to help him improve in his events, just as he used Barney to learn English.

"Every night, I look on YouTube, my favorite jumpers, and try to see what I can learn," he said. "I just take something from every major athlete and try to see if I can implement it into myself so that I can be as dynamic and effective as they are."

From stars like sprinter Usain Bolt and triple jumper Christian Taylor, Zaza learned the importance of confidence.

"If you come into a track race or the stadium with any type of doubts, you've already lost the race," said Zaza, a second team All-American in 2016 in hurdles and relay. "Once that Auburn gear hits my body, it's time to go to work."

<em> Zaza earned second team All-America honors in 110-meter hurdles and 4x100-meter relay in 2016.</em>
Zaza earned second team All-America honors in 110-meter hurdles and 4x100-meter relay in 2016.

'I've been doubted. You can do it.'

After his final indoor and outdoor seasons at Auburn, Zaza will graduate in May in public administration.

"When I run my last race, I want to give a big thanks to Auburn University, the coaches, my teammates, for giving me a chance," Zaza said. "As a juco transfer, not a lot of people get that chance to move on to a university. After my last race, I want to give my final farewells to Auburn University and say, `Thank you.'"

Zaza plans to compete professionally and then return to Philadelphia, using his story to inspire others to translate their athletic gifts into academic opportunities.

"A lot of kids who have the elite abilities to be athletic, they don't really get the chance," he said. "Because I've been there, I can say, `Hey, look. I want you guys to try this because you'll get exposure here. And use your track abilities to get you to college.'

"Because not a lot of those kids back home are thinking about going to college. Since I've made it so far in life, despite all of the doubts I had growing up, I felt like it's my job to back and tell these kids, `I've been doubted. You can do it.' That's really what I want to do."

Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter:

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