Masho Gebremikael
Masho Gebremikael's University of Southern Maine teammates call him "the nicest man in the world." (Courtesy Cullen McIntyre/USM Athletics)
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It’s not about where Masho Gebremikael starts, but where he finishes.

“Every time I get to the track I’m thinking, ‘I want to run a better time than before,’” the University of Southern Maine distance runner said. “If you’re mentally strong, you perform well. In order to be mentally strong, I just think of the outcome.”

Greg LevinskyWhile that comment is about his running career, it’s also a guiding principle for his life outside sport.

It wasn’t long ago when Gebremikael and his family immigrated to Maine from Ethiopia. Entering eighth grade in the Portland Public Schools, he knew little English. And when it comes to running, a sport he now so dearly loves, Gebremikael remembers his first Deering High School cross-country practices well.

He couldn’t run more than two miles.

“When I came here, it was hard for me to join any sports because of the language gap, and I didn’t know they had these programs in school because we didn’t have them back home,” he said. “It was my junior year when I joined cross-country. … I wanted to go to college, and my adviser mentioned I should join an extracurricular activity. Halfway through my junior year of high school, I started running, and now I’m still doing it.”

Whether it was watching movies in his native Amharic language with English subtitles to supplement his schooling or running for personal records every time he trains, Gebremikael seems to always find ways to learn and improve quickly.

The 2017 Deering High School graduate has charted his own course in college, rising from a little-known runner to one of the Little East Conference’s best, but also in the classroom as an outstanding student-athlete in USM’s athletic training program. Now a senior at the University of Southern Maine, Gebremikael is thriving athletically and academically.

Gebremikael has contributed to seven conference team titles between cross-country, indoor track, and outdoor track; has won two individual titles; two individual runner-ups; several conference awards, and has qualified for the New England Division III Championships and All-New England Championships.

To boot, Gebremikael is nicknamed “the nicest man in the world,” by his team.

“How Masho has grown as an athlete, a student, and a member of our community is borderline unbelievable on the face of it,” USM men’s cross-country and track coach Ryan Harkleroad said. “He works so incredibly hard at everything he does, he puts all of himself into it, and I know it must be exhausting at times. … We’re going to miss the heck out of him when he graduates, but another organization is going to find themselves an incredibly valuable member of their community.”

Athletic accolades aside, Gebremikael is prolific.

On any given day, he would put in a full morning of classes, participate in a team running workout, take the bus back to his Portland residence and head off to a clinical. He’s also done clinical work at USM, Thornton Academy in Saco, and currently at Portland High School. Gebremikael will spend part of his final semester as an undergrad interning in athletic training at Southern Maine Community College.

For him it’s academics first, running second.

As he looks forward to graduating next spring, Gebremikael plans to look for work as a college athletic trainer.

“I love the college setting,” he said. “It’s more my pace.”

No pun intended.

Greg Levinsky is a Portland native and follower of local sports. He is an alumnus of Deering High School and Boston University whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, Detroit Free Press, and several Maine newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected].