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Walking from war, running to opportunity

Kristen Anderson/Vail DailyDey Tuach Dey talks on the phone to his cousin, who lives in Sudan, Tuesday before having knee surgery at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Vail.
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VAIL, Colorado ” Each step took Dey Tuach Dey, then 7, farther from his family.

Still, he walked. For four months, he walked.

He walked through hunger and thirst to escape his native Sudan. He walked among wild lions. He crossed a crocodile-infested river that was red with blood.

Now, Tuach Dey is 18, and he runs. He runs faster than pretty much anyone. He runs to medals, to championships.

Tuach Dey has run so fast he gets letters from big universities, places like the University of Florida and Arizona State University, that offer him scholarships.

He runs with an intense desire to win, but not for his own glory.

“I want to represent my school,” said Tuach Dey, who runs for Thornton High School. “It’s not for me.”

Tuach Dey ” tall at 6-foot-5 and lanky as a wire ” was leading the Class 5A state cross-country championships last fall when his knee gave out with one-tenth of a mile left. To the shock of his coaches, he apologized.

“The first words he said to me were, ‘I’m sorry to disappoint you,'” said Donna Miles, Thornton High’s athletic director, choking up at the memory.

Tuach Dey still competed a few weeks later in the Foot Locker Regional Championships in Wisconsin, where he still finished 13th. His knee wasn’t right.

Turns out, he had a tear in his meniscus. Tuach Dey has no health insurance, and his school scrambled to raise funds and find a surgeon.

By chance, the school connected with Vail’s Steadman-Hawkins Clinic, world renowned for treating pro athletes. The clinic, along with the Vail Valley Medical Center and Vail Valley Anesthesia, donated Tuach Dey’s surgery, a procedure that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Dey runs to win. He also runs to forget.

“If I go run, I just stop thinking about my mom and my dad,” he said in his accented English.

It is hard for Tuach Dey ” quiet, sincere and impeccably polite ” to talk about those years. It is particularly hard for him to talk about his parents, whom he has not seen for 12 years.

Tuach Dey is a native of southern Sudan, which was wracked by civil war for decades. The southern rebels fought the northern Arabs, which controlled the government.

Over the years, villages in the south were regularly ransacked by government-backed fighters.

That is what happened one day to Tuach Dey’s town, Malakal.

Early that morning, his father had sent him to collect cow dung, which is used for heat.

“They came and attacked us, burned our house, killed children, everyone,” he said. “When they attacked, I ran, and all my family ran a different way.”

That is when Dey cannot continue with his story. In an instant, he goes from earnest and forthcoming to frozen. He hides his face in his hands.

A moment later ” just as he inexplicably apologized for his knee injury at the state championships ” he apologizes for his own emotions as he grasps at Kleenex.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “That story has made me think, it’s going to be 12 years that I haven’t seen my mom and my dad.”

Then he talks about walking. He walked with a neighbor from his town. At times, the neighbor would carry Tuach Dey, then 7.

He wasn’t sure where they were going. He can’t remember how long they walked each day.

He remembers the thirst. They drank whatever muddy water they could find, out of watering holes and the footprints of elephants.

He remembers hunger, too.

“We didn’t have any food to eat,” he said.

At one time, they killed a gazelle and ate it.

There were others who walked with them, adults and children. Some died of hunger or thirst.

After four months of walking, they crossed a river into Ethiopia.

“They have a crocodiles there, and those crocodiles, two people my age ” two young people ” they cut into pieces,” he said. “So I remember that the water was kind of bloody.”

Tuach Dey settled in the Dimma refugee camp in Ethiopia, where he lived in a tent with nine others for about eight years. He went to school there, from the fourth grade to the 10th grade.

Recent documentaries and books have chronicled the lives of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” But Tuach Dey said the Lost Boys were the ones who fled to Kenya, not Ethiopia. Tuach Dey used a term for himself that’s might be more apropos for a young airline passenger, not a war refugee.

“They call us ‘unaccompanied minors,'” he said.

Two years ago, Tuach Dey got the opportunity to come to the United States through a Lutheran group. The teen was sent to Colorado and ended up in Thornton, where he now lives with two other Sudanese refugees.

It’s quite a change from his hometown, where he grew up without electricity or running water.

Tuach Dey had never run competitively when he walked into Thornton High last year, having played soccer growing up.

Anguel Tolev, a star runner at Thornton last year who now runs cross-country for the University of Pennsylvania, sidled up to Tuach Dey one day in the gym and asked him to consider running track.

During their first training session, Tuach Dey ran stride-for-stride with Tolev, then one of the best runners in the state.

“I saw him running with Anguel,” Miles said. “I mean, really running with Anguel. He’s beautiful to watch. A natural.”

That spring, Dey ran the 800 meters, winning third place in the state championships. Coaches say his work ethic is immense.

The next fall, he ran cross-country. He won and won and won. His fastest time was a blistering 15 minutes, 26 seconds for 3.1 miles.

But Tuach Dey took his defeat at the state championships, when his knee gave out, hard.

“I cried,” he said.

Then, he finished 13th at the U.S. regional championships.

“Not good enough for me,” he said. “I wanted to go to nationals.”

Tuesday’s surgery went very well, said Dr. Tom Hackett of the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic, who performed it. Tuach Dey should be running again in about six weeks, Hackett said.

Hackett ” who had performed surgery on a starting NFL player earlier in the day ” said he was touched by Tuach Dey’s story. Part of Hackett’s own family lives in Africa and has tried to assist with the recent Sudanese conflicts, he said.

Tuach Dey is being recruited by Division I cross country programs. His goal is to represent the United States in the Olympics one day.

He doesn’t want to return to live in Africa. There is so much opportunity here, he said. He doesn’t know what he wants to do for a profession, but his favorite subject is environmental science.

Tuach Dey hasn’t spoken to his parents for more than a decade, but he said he knows they are alive. He has more than 10 siblings who live in Sudan, too. He wants to bring his family to the U.S. one day.

“Africa is a good place,” he said. “But the problem is, the war is in Africa all the time.”

Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or estoner@vaildaily.com.


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