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Prep boys track preview: Cloquet's Seju making most of chance to run free

Cloquet sprinter Richmond Seju, a Liberian refugee, is one of the area's fastest runners. He's also an outstanding artist. (Clint Austin / / 2
Cloquet’s Richmond Seju drew this picture depicting Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman, all of whom played key roles in the civil rights movement. Tubman’s face is incomplete, Seju says, because the journey is incomplete. (Clint Austin / / 2

Richmond Seju spent the bulk of his adolescence on the run, but he wasn’t training to be a track star.

He was trying to stay alive.

Up until 2008, Seju lived in Liberia, the African nation ravaged by civil war. Amid a conflict that made rampant use of child soldiers, Seju and his family rarely lingered.

“I don’t actually remember a lot about the war, but my parents used to tell me stories,” Seju, the speedy Cloquet senior, said Wednesday. “My mom would tell me how it

wasn’t safe and she used to move from place to place to keep us safe. You never knew when guys were going to come in and take your family.

“We used to live every day not knowing what was going to happen the next day, not knowing if we were going to have food to eat the next day.”

In 2008, Seju’s family uprooted to Minnesota. They lived in the suburbs of Minneapolis before heading north in 2012 so his mother could attend Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet. Seju, who admittedly didn’t think much of the Northland at first sight, wanted to play a sport, so he met with Cloquet boys track coach Tim Prosen.

The soft-spoken youngster’s talent, however raw, was indisputable.

“We brought him out to practice and I think he was wearing work boots,” Prosen recalled. “We did some workouts right away and he just blew by everyone, and everyone was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”

Two years later, Seju hasn’t come close to realizing his full potential. That’s because he’s still relatively new to the sport and his technique remains a work in progress. Right now, it’s best described as unorthodox.

“Rich has a very unique technique,” said Jeff Leno, who primarily works with Cloquet’s sprinters. “Anybody who knows sprinting would watch Rich and the response would be, ‘Man, we need to work on that; his technique is off a little bit.’ He actually has a very smooth technique.

“When Rich runs by himself, you can’t even hear him, the actual footsteps. He’s so light.”

The result is an athlete aiming to qualify for the state meet in four different events: 100- and 200-meter dashes, 1,600 relay and the long jump. At Tuesday’s initial Lake Superior Conference meet, Seju was first in the 100 (11.1 seconds) and 200 (23.4) while finishing third in the long jump (18 feet, 8 inches). He helped the Lumberjacks fend off Duluth Denfeld in the 1,600 relay with a time of 3 minutes, 39 seconds.

And Seju fully expects to get faster as the spring progresses. The big holdup, he says, are slow starts from the blocks. The consummate perfectionist is working tirelessly to shore that up, staying late after practice almost daily.

It’s how Seju is wired. Take, for example, his artwork. His highly acclaimed drawings define precision. They are uncanny in their detail, specifically ones that depict Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman, all key figures in the civil rights movement. Tubman’s face isn’t complete, Seju says, because the journey isn’t complete.

Seju talks about drawing the same way he talks about running or soccer — he was a goal-scoring standout for the Lumberjacks — in that his passion is evident.

Whether he’s working on a piece he was commissioned to draw or one that will be displayed at a gallery in the Twin Cities, the goal is the same: perfection.

“When I draw a picture, I just want to try to make it awesome, to make people like it,” he said.

His coach says that mindset is indicative of how Seju approaches everything.

“He’s very focused,” Prosen said. “He’s had to work for everything he’s ever received.”

No longer running for his life, it’s nonetheless therapeutic for Seju.

“When I get out there on the track, I let everything go,” he said. “I’m just by myself.”

-- While Seju leads the sprinters, Prosen has enviable depth, including a distance group that features runners from last fall’s Lumberjack cross country team that went to state. Freshman Isaac Boedigheimer was second in last weekend’s Fitger’s 5K; Isaac Gilchrist excels in the hurdles and high jump; and Joe Defoe, Evan Erickson, Landen Rookey and Dusty Manty comprise a solid group of throwers.

Around the Northland

-- Duluth Denfeld is tasked with replacing a bevy of seniors that helped the Hunters win the LSC title and finish fourth in Section 7AA a year ago. Top returning athletes include Ben Halverson, a 2013 state qualifier in the pole vault, sprinters Connor Behm and Derek Swenson and distance runners Tommy Jackson and Nolan Wayne.

-- Sprinters Peter Spears, Shawn Pierce and Cory Erickson — who won the 100, 200 and 400, respectively, at Tuesday’s LSC meet — along with a strong distance lineup highlighted by Keaton Long make Duluth East formidable.

-- Hermantown’s Kenechukwu Udejiofor is among the area’s best all-around athletes.

-- Esko is coming off its best finish, third, at the state True Team meet. Brandt Hintsala and Seth Shingledecker lead strong relay teams. Other top returnees for the Eskomos include Cal Beaudot, Reid Borchardt, Rick Johnson, Jacob Lindstrom, Matt Rengo and Jacob Tucker.

-- Grand Rapids looks to defend its Iron Range Conference title, as well as its Section 7AA True Team title. Jake Avenson highlights the distance runners and Brady Thomsen, who was fourth in the discus at last year’s state meet, is the Thunderhawks’ best bet in the throws. Thomsen could chase down Wayne Jacobson’s school-record 57-5 in the shot, set in 1968. Jason Bibeau already has topped 20 feet in the long jump.

-- Wil Maki, Andy Rudberg and Tyler Jerkovich lead a strong Hibbing team that has its sights set on catching Grand Rapids atop the IRC.

-- Ely’s Mark Heiman is back to defend his Section 7A triple jump title, when he posted a school-record 43-7. Heiman finished fourth at the state meet. The Timberwolves have a program-record 30 boys out for the track team, which continues to be sponsored by the Ely Track Club — it was dropped by the school district in 2006.

-- Tyler Moderman-Anderson (pole vault) and Carter Anderson (110 and 300 hurdles) return for Superior.