College Track: Running towards greatness

Here's the backstory of elite runner and Willmar grad Nadir Yusuf

Yusuf receiving the MSU-M Athlete of the Year on Saturday for the 2019-20 season. Credit to Minnesota State University-Moorhead.
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Minnesota State University-Moorhead distance runner Nadir Yusuf only wanted a qualifying time, not history. He got both.

No runner in MSU-M history had ever achieved the first-place finish at the highly valued Drake Relays, which featured both NCAA Division I and II competitors. It did not matter to Yusuf. With having months to prepare and a healthy dosage of confidence, the long-distance runner only wanted to qualify for nationals.

With months of preparation leading up the highly anticipated relay, Yusuf led the pack for 8,000 meters of the 10k race, resulting in a historical first-place finish with a time of 29 minutes, 12.04 seconds on April 22 in Des Moines, Iowa. It shattered Yusuf’s previous school record of 29:58.4 set in 2019, earning an NCAA qualifying time and setting the best time in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference this season.

“With beating my previous record by 46 seconds, with the training that we’ve been doing, I knew that I was going to run faster,” said Yusuf, a 2016 Willmar Senior High graduate. “Every time I’m running the goal is to get better each time I get to a certain line and try to do my best in positioning myself to win.”

For Yusuf, being able to still bring success to his hometown of Willmar continues to shine brightly.


“Knowing that the people back home, whether it’s my family, friends, competitors, are able to see the progress that I’ve made from being a Cardinal and now where I am as a Dragon, it’s something to be proud of,” he said.

Running may have not always been his top priority, but it’s the love of running, and his city, that has made Yusuf be known as one of the best runners Willmar has had.

Willmar: Where it all began

Yusuf, 24, was born on Jan. 1 1997 in Somalia. In June of 2006, with the sponsorship of Lutheran Social Services, Yusuf, along with his mother and three brothers, were brought to Willmar with the hopes of evading the Civil War within Somalia and having better life opportunities and achieving advanced education.
To then 9-year-old Yusuf, the relocation was a challenging hurdle to overcome.

“I didn’t know how to speak English, I didn’t know how to write my own name, or say hi, or when you walk by, the Minnesota nice person you smile, give them a head nod or wave hello, I couldn’t do any of that,” he said.

In elementary school, Yusuf learned English through the Rosetta Stone computer program. He was part of the English as a Second Language (ESL) program run by what Yusuf described as incredibly helpful teachers. He stayed in the program from third through sixth grade.

It was in junior high where Yusuf would be introduced to what would eventually become his ultimate loves in running: track and field and cross-country.

“With running, the cross-country and track program in Willmar really helped nurture and prepare kids like me on the team,” he said. “Whether they were sprinters, distance, field events, it really helped prepare us students and provide us with life lessons that you can’t really learn in the classroom or from the books.

“That program really prepared me and helped me get to where I am at with the help of some phenomenal teachers and coaches that were part of that,” Yusuf added.


Under the teaching of Willmar track and cross-country head coach Jerry Popp and his assistant coaches, Yusuf began to see his potential within the sport and really got a knack for wanting to be the best athlete he could be.

Nevertheless, Yusuf looked up to the team captains and their willingness to show what it meant to be a true team athlete.

“Some who were captains that were there at the beginning stages who really showed the ropes and were able to lead by example,” he said. “Whether that was giving me rides home and making sure that I was doing what I needed to do before and after the race. Just amazing people.”

For a time it looked like Yusuf was running on the right track. That was, until everything came to a stop.

Nadir Yusuf competes in the NSIC Indoor Championships in February. Credit SPX Sports.

Take it to the court

In the midst of learning track and cross-country in the middle of his junior high career came the introduction to a completely different sport in basketball. Despite it being different, Yusuf found the game highly entertaining and, like most youngsters, began to envision himself as a highly sought-after basketball prospect.

To him, nothing else mattered but the rubber ball in his hands, and the hoop.


“I was just playing basketball, I would spend my time playing basketball with some of the other kids and the Somali kids because there was a park nearby that we would go to,” he said. “I was doing that for a while.”

With his enthusiasm for track and cross-country beginning to decline, so did his optimization of wanting to be a part of the team.

Eventually, the coaches gave Yusuf the opportunity to take a hiatus from running to pursue basketball.

“I was like ‘that’s fine, that gives me more time that I can go out and play more basketball and become a basketball player thinking that one day I would be able to go out and play varsity,’” he said.

In the end, Yusuf’s dreams of playing varsity basketball were shot down by the end of his sophomore year.

The dream of being an elite ball player may have been over, but his thoughts of returning to track and cross-country quickly began to run circles in his mind.

Back to the track

The return to the track was not an easy one.

With cross-country beginning during the time of Ramadan, a religious time for Muslims in which eating and drinking are not allowed from dawn to sunset, the adjustment for Yusuf was yet another difficult task.

“We had our first day and I think we ran about 8-9 miles and it was like at 7:30-8 a.m. and I was like ‘I can’t keep doing this,’” he said. “I just didn’t go back after day one.”

With track and field being the final option, Yusuf was highly set on doing everything possible to make sure that it stuck.

“I got to be back on the team and from there I was just a good boy,” he said. “I followed the rules, did what I was supposed to and ended up doing well and sticking it out for the rest of the four years of high school.”

In his four-year career with the Cardinals, Yusuf finished with times of 15:40 in the 5k, 9:47 in the 3,200, 4:37 in the 1,600, 2:04 in the 800 and 58 seconds in the 400.

Yusuf was a four-time state qualifier for the Cardinals, four-time all-conference, and two-time all-state honoree, and was the team captain.

Needless to say, the elite runner was sure to go to the next level. The only question was where.

Yusuf competing in the Masanz Classic in Moorhead on Saturday. Credit to Sean Rice.

The heart of a Dragon

MSU-Moorhead was not a hard decision to make for Yusuf, based on Popp and some of his favorite teachers having been notable alumni. For Yusuf, being NCAA D-II didn’t matter nearly as much as getting a proper education.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re competing at D-I, II, III, NAIA, or junior college, you can still make the best out of any division and make sure that you can go there, have the same education wherever you go … divisions don’t matter,” he said. “It’s the work that you do and the results that show is what really matters.”

For Dragons track and field head coach Ryan Milner, Yusuf seemed like the typical freshman, but his determination to get better and willingness to learn made him stick out the pack quickly.

“He’s been phenomenal to work with. He kind of checks all of the boxes here that we’re looking for as a student athlete,” Milner said. “He’s really committed on the track. There’s really none better right now as far as on our team goes. He’s passionate about taking care of business in the classroom. He has a pretty good understanding that what he does in the classroom is going to set him up for the rest of his life.”

Yusuf began to bloom in 2019 by winning the UND Indoor Open in the 5,000 meters, earning All-NSIC at the NSIC Outdoor Championships in the 5,000 and 10,000. He also set the outdoors school record in the 10,000 at the Mount San Antonio College Relays with a time of 29:58.44.

After a significant 2019 season, Yusuf was looking forward to having another stellar season in 2020. The elite runner won the NSIC championship in the 3,000 meters, earning All-NSIC honors at the indoor championships. He earned three wins in the 3k indoors and set another school record in the 5k at the Mel Tjeerdsma Classic with a 14:18.00.

After the indoor season, Yusuf was highly looking forward to the outdoor season. It was a season that would never come.

Overcoming heartbreak

The cancellation of the spring season due to the fresh COVID-19 pandemic was a heartbreaker for Yusuf after coming off an impeccable indoor track season.

However, Yusuf viewed the tough time as a learning experience, and a matter of being thankful for sports.

“I think it was just another step into realizing that sports is just bigger than who we are and what we do in the moment,” he said.

Luckily, due to the elite runner redshirting the entire 2018-19 season, Yusuf was able to come back in 2021 and give it one more run.

Due to having the lengthy offseason, Yusuf wasted no time in getting prepared for his senior season, constantly yearning towards improving and not letting the time be wasted.

“Just gave us more time to look at the little things and see why those little things matter,” he said. “It would really show once you’re able to compete. It’ll show who put in the work and who didn’t. It just gave you more time.”

Milner credited his captain for his constant effort to improve and be the best.

“It makes the job enjoyable. It makes it fun to be a part of an experience like that,” he said. “I think if you’re doing this right it’s more of a partnership. So anytime you’re working together and there’s meaningful give and take and you’re both learning something from the experiences, I think that it’s pretty rare.”

Due to his non-stop work ethic, Yusuf wasted no time in proving he was still a threat on the track during the 2021 indoor track season, starting with a win in the 3k at the Bison Cup Classic, outrunning NCAA D-I opponents.

Yusuf followed it up with winning the mile in the next competition, followed by placing second in the Bison Open in the men’s 3k with a time of 8:21.18, a school record, and placing first in the 5k at the University of Mary with a time of 14:38.40, his fastest time this season.

Finally, after a year of anxiously awaiting the arrival of the outdoor season, Yusuf torched the NDSU Spring Classic. He placed second in the 1,500 with a time of 3:56.88, two weeks before the first-place finish at the Drake Relays, earning him NSIC Athlete of the Week awards.

For Milner, Yusuf’s historic achievement was not as impressive as the hard work it took to allow the senior runner to capitalize on the moment.

“I liked all the accolades that came with it. It was cool to win, cool to qualify for nationals, run the PR and all of that,” Milner said. “But from the coaching side of things, what really stood out to me was just that he really showed a lot of growth on his part.

“He led 8,000 meters of the race. To do that and run the quality of time that he did to me was really significant and a major kind of benchmark in his progression as an athlete where he kind of had to shoulder the whole load. He dictated pretty much the whole race and he ran the time from the front so it was a very different tactical skill set that he showed.

“From my lens, that was probably the biggest thing of the night that I was happy about.”

What’s next?

While the 24-year-old has racked up a string of awards throughout his career as a runner, Yusuf said there can’t be one that is his most favorite just yet.

“The (senior) season is not over yet,” he said.

However, if he had to pick what his greatest accomplishment would be to date, proving that you don’t have to be NCAA D-I to be the best.

“All the accolades just kind of speak for themselves. There’s not much that I can talk about,” he said. “I think the opportunity of being able to come to a school like MSU-M and really make the most of the opportunity that I’m given and to learn that you can achieve your dreams without having the best facility, the best equipment, as long as you stick to the process and do the things that you need to do, over time you’ll achieve your dreams.”

While the end of the outdoor season may likely be the end of Yusuf’s running career, Yusuf will be graduating with a business administration major with an emphasis on marketing.

Nevertheless, Yusuf credits his Willmar teachers and coaches who helped the 9-year-old boy become the man who has never stopped running towards his dreams.

“Teachers have the most impactful job in this world and they get to help craft kids in the early days and prepare them for their future and open up the doors for them,” he said.

The NCAA Outdoor Championships will be held in Allendale, Mich. from May 27-29.

Nadir Yusuf senior headshot. Credit to Minnesota State University-Moorhead.

Matthew Curry is a sports reporter and photographer for the West Central Tribune.
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