As he crossed the finish line at the David Hemery Valentine Invite, Waleed Suliman may not have realized it, but he had just broken the Ole Miss record for the fastest mile ever run. His time of 3:56.78 is the fastest mile time in the entire NCAA this season.
Suliman has been making strides in the track and field world since his move to the United States in 2014, though not without his share of hurdles.
Suliman’s family is originally from Sudan in Northern Africa. His father, raised in Darfur, came to know a world that wouldn’t accept him. Racial discrimination made it difficult for the elder Suliman to make a name for himself in his home country.
Suliman’s father eventually settled in Jordan and filed for protection with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2006, hoping to secure documentation for himself and his family to move to either Australia or the United States.
“The main reason my dad actually did that is he wanted us to have a better education,” Suliman said.
Suliman attended a Jordanian high school and eventually left after his sophomore year to start his career at Douglas S. Freeman High School in Richmond, Virginia, running for the Freeman Rebels.
“(In Jordan) we had (English) classes in high school, middle school and elementary school, but we honestly didn’t care about it,” Suliman said.
With only a basic knowledge of the English language at his disposal, Suliman came to the U.S. and found it difficult to make friends due to the language barrier.
“I joined a cross-country team, and I realized I actually could not communicate with any of them,” Suliman said. “As a foreigner who doesn’t speak the dominant language, it’s really hard for you to make friends or actually establish yourself within the community.”
Before he arrived in Virginia, Suliman had never thought of running either track or cross-country. He was approached by the coach of a local cross-country club team five months before he and his family left for the U.S.
“I was playing soccer,” Suliman said “A club coach came up to me and said, ‘You seem like you’re pretty good, and you have really good form. Why don’t you try and run with me in the club — I’ll be your coach,’ and I was like, ‘I’ll try it out. I’ve got nothing to do.’”
From that day forward, Suliman’s life wouldn’t be the same.
Suliman said he is thankful that he joined the cross-country team. Without it, he may not have ever learned English. The team pushed him to learn English, and this led him to take English as a second language class in school.
“During runs, we would talk, and I would learn a word or two,” Suliman said. “We’d always joke about me messing up something, and it always stayed in my mind like, ‘Alright, I cannot make that same mistake again, or I’m gonna get roasted.’”
While in high school, Suliman won 10 state meets, was recognized as a high school All- American twice, secured a position as a Foot Locker Nationals finalist twice, was named Gatorade State Runner of the Year in 2017 and broke the Richmond-area records for the mile, the 1,600-meter and the 5K, all of which he still holds.
All of this recognition created quite an interest in his talents, and by his junior year, Suliman was a highly sought after athlete. After the Foot Locker Nationals, Suliman said, programs began to reach out.
Initially, he was interested in North Carolina State University, citing a personable coach and a cohesive team of friends as major factors in his decision.
“Then senior year came,” Suliman said. “Things just got different.”
Once Suliman was eligible to receive calls from NCAA coaches, his phone rang constantly, driving him to question his solid positioning with NC State. One of these calls was from Ole Miss coach Ryan Vanhoy.
Vanhoy invited Suliman to Oxford, took him to a football game and gave him a tour of the town.
Following the visit, Suliman went on an official visit to NC State, and the magic was seemingly lost. He didn’t like the way the team ran on the streets, and he noticed the culture of the team just wasn’t what he expected.
Suliman knew that Ole Miss would be the best fit for him, but his parents thought otherwise.
Given Mississippi’s dark past of racial tension, Suliman’s Sudanese family did not think Ole Miss would be the place for him. They told him he wasn’t allowed to go to Ole Miss after he said he would commit in the coming months.
He called Coach Vanhoy, who visited Suliman’s Richmond home to speak to his family. They still were not convinced.
Suliman told his parents he was going to Ole Miss despite their skepticism. Thirty minutes after their conversation, he committed to run for the Rebels, and he does not regret it.
“Honestly, I got things here I actually never thought I would be able to get,” Suliman said.
He mentioned that he has had no issue with race relations at the school and said that he has experienced nothing but friendship within the Ole Miss Cross Country program.
“He’s a really funny kid,” his teammate Mark Robertson said. “He is really good, and he always had been, but he’s so down to earth, which I didn’t expect when he first came in.”
Much like his decorated high school career, Suliman continues to make a name running for the Rebels. Suliman has been named to the SEC All-Freshman and second team All-American teams during his short time in Oxford.
“There were a lot of things that he had to do. A lot of hoops to jump through just to get to campus here,” Vanhoy said. “As great of a story as he has had here so far, it almost never happened.”