Liberian Athlete And Former Garnet Valley Track Star Sets Sights On World Championships
July 17, 2015
THE 2012-13 school year was a year of firsts for both Wellington Zaza and his track coach at Garnet Valley, Andrew Etter.
Etter was in his first year as the head coach of the Jaguars and Zaza was in his first year at the school, having spent his freshman and sophomore years at Upper Darby before going to Strath Haven for his junior year.
Zaza's father, Billy Neewray, is an international soccer agent based in Switzerland. Zaza has lived with different family members, and family reasons kept him on the move throughout his high school career, but his movement on the track and field stayed consistent.
Etter learned pretty quickly that his role in mentoring his pupil wasn't going be as it was for the rest of the team.
Once at the meets, Zaza took care of the rest. Zaza, Etter says, is probably the best track athlete ever to come through the halls of Garnet Valley.
Even before his one year at Garnet Valley, Zaza dominated in his junior year at Strath Haven. In the PIAA championships, he won the triple jump, was on the team's winning 4 x 100 relay team, was second in the 300 hurdles and fourth in the 110 hurdles.
The next year, in his only year competing for the Jaguars, Zaza won gold in both hurdle events and added a third in the triple jump - the first athlete to do so in PIAA history. He was one gold short of tying Leroy Burrell's record of four golds at one Pennsylvania state competition. He went on to set another Pennsylvania record, running a time of 13.54 seconds in the 110 hurdles at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals.
The work ethic he displayed at Garnet Valley rubbed off on the first-year head coach.
"He'd step onto the track and it was business," Etter recalled. "Stretching, warming up, whatever. I tell my athletes now, 'You gotta prepare yourself.' That's one thing that he took really seriously, and I was quite impressed with. His warmup, his preparation, that's what stood out."
Zaza, a 2013 high school All-America in the 110 hurdles, won district championships, state titles, competed and won national competitions and was a participant at the 2014 World Juniors. Now, the athlete has his sights set on international acclaim after competing for two years at Central Arizona College, where he was an All-America.
In late August, Zaza heads to China to compete in the World Championships in track for his native Liberia. He moved to America with his family when he was 5, to escape the country's civil war.
He's been training at Upper Darby High School with Charles Sawyer, a personal trainer and track coach. A good showing in China, Zaza says, and he'll earn a spot on Liberia's Olympics squad to compete next summer in Rio de Janeiro.
"It would mean the world," Zaza said of possibly qualifying for the Olympics. "All these years, 20 years of hard work and dedication, because I'm really passionate about this sport."
Brazil would be just another place on the long journey he's had to this point. His journey started in Liberia; he made his way to the East Coast, went west to Arizona and will next go to Auburn, where Zaza is signed to a scholarship. He originally committed to Miami out of high school, but academic issues forced him to go the junior college route. A coaching change at Miami opened his recruitment; he backed out of his commitment to the Hurricanes and committed to Auburn.
Even with all his traveling, Central Arizona's desolate campus in Coolidge, Ariz., was a bit different.
"Being from out here on the East Coast, then going out there and going to the desert, it was a culture shock," Zaza said. "Where our campus was, it's literally on an old Indian reservation. Either you do your work or you sit around bored all day. The only option was to do your work, because if you don't do work, you've got nothing else to do."
When he steps foot on Auburn's campus in the fall, Zaza finally will be settled, looking ahead to nothing but perhaps the 2016 Olympics and competing athletically while finishing out his college degree in communications.
For once, no distractions of moving schools, changing his address and trying to earn a scholarship or impress a coach.
"Right now, I'm just excited for stability, to be in a place where I can actually call home and graduate and get some academic achievements," Zaza said. "As far as moving around goes, it's not ideal or the best thing to do. But now that I can actually call a place home, it's the best feeling ever."
Source: By Jeff Neiburg - Philly.Com