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October 8, 2013

Twins stick together

By: Marc Mullen

Leoule Degfae spent a year at Tennessee, but transferred to Blacksburg four years ago to be with his twin brother, Tihut, and now the two hope to be double trouble to opponents of Tech’s track and field and cross country teams in their final season

Leoule Degfae (right), and his twin brother, Tihut, hope to run to more success in their final season in Blacksburg.

They really have come a long way, in every sense of the phrase, from their younger days. Leoule and Tihut Degfae, fraternal twins born in Ethiopia, used to dominate the sport of soccer as kids and amass homemade trophies for winning those “backyard” tournaments.

However, a couple of life-changing events brought these two Virginia Tech runners to the United States, where they stumbled into the sport of cross country. Together, they have helped the Hokies’ cross country and track teams collect three team championship trophies and are looking for a couple more before their time in Blacksburg is complete.

To tell their story and give it justice means going back to the beginning, to their days growing up in a small town in Ethiopia. Leoule, whose name is pronounced “Lay-ooh” but prefers to go by the shorter “Lee,” is the older of the twins by about five minutes. Tihut (pronounced Tay-hoot) likes to be called “T.” They are the only children of Degfae Setegn and Aselefech Elala.

“It’s kind of complicated,” Tihut said. “It’s an Ethiopian tradition that, when you get married, your mom and your dad both keep their last names, and when they have children, the last name of the child is the first name of the father. My dad’s first name is Degfae, so that’s our last name.”

“Yeah, that’s right, and whenever I tell someone that, they are a bit confused,” Leoule said. “So my kids will have my first name as their last name, but we’ll see. It’s weird to have my first name as someone’s last name because I’m Americanized now.

“I think I will keep the Degfae last name. I don’t think it’s that hard to say, but my first name is hard to say, and that’s why I just call myself ‘Lee.’ I was getting tired. It was just painful to hear people try to pronounce it. My brother is the one who actually made up that name when we were young, and it just stuck.”

In their descriptions of life growing up in Ethiopia, it didn’t seem all too different from growing up anywhere else. The only difference for them was that their father was away during most of their childhood, continuing his education in England.

They attended school. They played sports with their friends. They even watched TV.

“It was a typical school. It was based on the English system,” Tihut said. “We went to a private school in Ethiopia, and it was pretty strict. We would study a little bit of French and English – those were the top languages you had to learn. Then, we were also learning Amharic, the Ethiopian language, so we were learning three languages.”

“We lived in the city, and it was about a 20-minute bus ride to school. It was crowded with 60 to 70 students,” Leoule said. “I just remember going to school was the tough part, and no matter what, my parents did whatever they could to get us to school. If we missed the bus, we’d get into a horse carriage and just go. So we never missed school. That was our parents’ main focus and still is.”

They didn’t grow up clamoring to be cross country runners. Actually, they grew up playing soccer. After school and on weekends, the duo would play with their friends, and the sport of choice was soccer for the most part.

“I just remember us having the freedom to roam around and do whatever we wanted,” Tihut said. “We played soccer. That’s basically all we played. There was a big field out there, and with all the kids in the neighborhood, we would have soccer tournaments.

“The only funny story I have that I usually tell my friends is that we used to make soccer balls. We used to collect little plastic bags all around the neighborhood, and we would make soccer balls out of the plastic bags and rubber bands. That would be our ball if we lost one. That’s about the only story that has really stuck with me from there.”

The balls weren’t the only things homemade. The reward for winning was a homemade item as well.

“We would have these soccer tournaments, and whoever would win the tournaments would get these bottle caps,” Leoule said. “We would form them into trophies. We would put them together so that they would look like a trophy. We would do that almost every day.”

One other thing the Degfaes would do is invite their friends over to watch television. But the viewing party wouldn’t last long.

“We lived in a pretty standard home and were probably the only house in our whole neighborhood that had TV,” Tihut said. “It was only on for about four or five hours a day, from, like, 7 p.m. to midnight. After 12, the national anthem would play and then [the TV would] cutoff. But we were pretty lucky to have one.”

“Everyone would come to our house to watch this one show – Ababa Tesfaye. It’s a kids’ show like Mr. Rogers [Mister Rogers Neighborhood],” Leoule said. “Everyone would just gather around in a room in our house and just watch that one show. And that was because we only had one channel, so whenever it came on, we watched it, and after that, there was nothing else to do, so we just went and played outside.”

The first major change in their lives came when they were 9. Their father, done with his studies, moved to the United States, and the time had come for the family to live together. They made the 7,000-plus mile journey from their hometown of Awasa to the United States in the summer of 1999, and they settled down in Alexandria, Va.

As can be imagined, it was an exciting time, but a huge shock to the system as well.

At the age of 9, the Degfae twins moved with their family from Ethiopia and settled in Alexandria, Va., and they later graduated from Thomas Edison High School.

“Well, the first thing was that we were so excited to see our father for the first time in a while,” Tihut said. “Then, when we got settled down, we were sort of treated like guests for a while, so it was pretty nice getting treated like that.

“Eating McDonald’s for the first time, we hated it. We didn’t like the nuggets or ketchup. We just wanted some enjera, some Ethiopian food, so that was kind of hard to get transitioned to eating here.”

Eating a different style of food wasn’t the only difficult transition. Getting accustomed to the school system and making new friends had its difficulties as well.

“It was a major shock to me because there was a lot of technology around me,” Leoule said. “They also put us in ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] classes at first, so we could get transitioned into communicating better, but my brother and I picked it up pretty quick.

“Playing outside was the hard part because we didn’t know anyone, so we just sat inside and did nothing, and that was different because we just sat there and watched TV. Our dad did this on purpose. He told us there was only one channel here as well, and he would hide the remote and not let us use it. Then one day, we got the remote and started flipping through, and we were just both so amazed.”

Eventually the twins made new friends, continued to play soccer, were introduced to new sports like football and cricket, and matriculated on the same level as their American counterparts. Interestingly, it wasn’t until heading into their freshman year of high school that the idea of running entered into their minds, and it was because of soccer.

“We were never really into running at all, and we just kind of accidentally fell upon it in high school,” Tihut said. “We used to play football and soccer, but our dad made us choose between soccer and football, and since we already made the commitment and already purchased all of the gear, we just decided to stay with soccer.

“Soccer kind of ends right before the fall and we had nothing to do. We already gave up on summer football training, so it was either cross country or golf. One of our friends who joined cross country because he was a little too small to play football said, ‘This is pretty fun. You guys should come try it out. You guys are Ethiopian, so you guys should be pretty good at it.’ So we joined the cross country team, and that’s where it all started.”

The teenagers dominated in the sport, with Leoule taking over the distance running events and Tihut later excelling in the shorter track events. Leoule was so good that he earned an All-America honor by placing 12th at the 2009 Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships, while Tihut was an All-American in track.

Next came their second major change, a minor one, but one that would see the pair split for the first time in their lives. Tihut had always wanted to come to Virginia Tech, while Leoule ended up at the University of Tennessee.

“I ended up at the University of Tennessee to be my own person,” Leoule said. “I lived with my brother for, like, 19 years. I just wanted to see what it would be like without him. And the University of Tennessee was great. I experienced a lot of stuff. It was a wide eye-opening experience, and running was great.”

“Yeah, that was the first year we weren’t together, and it was weird because we would have different breaks from school, and the first question I would get back home was, ‘Where’s Lee?’” Tihut said. “So I had to deal with that for a while and be like, ‘He’s at Tennessee,’ and people were kind of shocked that we didn’t go to the same school. But we kept in touch the whole time.

“Then, his sophomore year, he transferred here. I guess he missed me too much.”

Many factors went into Leoule’s transfer to Tech, but the main one was moving back to a school in the state of Virginia. The coaches from UVa contacted him about being a Cavalier, but he said that was never an option.

Having the Degfaes on the Tech roster has been beneficial to the Hokies, as each has helped the program pull in its latest ACC team titles. Leoule was instrumental in the cross country’s team victory last fall, placing 22nd at the championship meet. The day was bittersweet for him, though, because he wanted to run better.

“I ran my butt off last summer. I ran like 80-90 miles a week, and my whole senior year last year was effortless,” he said. “I was, like, our No. 2 guy every single time except for ACCs. That was bad. I just didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before, but we still won. Thank God, but the hardest part was knowing that I could have done better and been All-ACC.”

The pair also helped the Hokies to the ACC indoor crown last winter, with Leoule placing fourth in the 3,000-meter run – the next-to-last race that solidified the team title. Tihut grabbed individual gold in the 800-meter race.

Some might consider Tihut one-upping his older brother with that win, but when asked about competitions between the two, neither one could really recall any type of sibling rivalry.

The Degfae twins spent their formative years in Ethiopia before
moving to the United States when their father finished his
studies in England.

“We weren’t actually the competitive type. We would just always try to help each other out,” Leoule said. “I remember in school, if he was a little better than me, I was always asking him how to do this, and he would ask me the same stuff. There were some parts in school where he was better and some parts that I was better, and the same with running.

“In cross country, I am better than him, and he’s better than me in the 800. To see us run in the same event was weird.”

However, in their final season together, that might change as they may battle just one time on the indoor track.

“Actually this year, we’re going to have a competition – who’s going to win the mile because that’s right in the middle,” Leoule said. “I still haven’t raced him in the mile yet, and I told coach [Ben Thomas] that we’ve got to race the mile to see who would win that one. I think it’s going to be close, but that’s what I am excited to do in indoor.

“That’s probably the most competitive I am ever going to be with my brother, at least running-wise. We aren’t too competitive, but whenever we talk about the mile, we get competitive with that. People ask us, ‘Who’s going to win the mile,’ and I always say, ‘Of course, I am.’ and he’s always like, ‘I doubt that.’ But we’re not too competitive. We usually just try to help each other rather than beat each other.”

Tihut has just cross country and indoor track eligibility left, while Leoule has all three remaining. Upon graduation, they plan to move back to the Northern Virginia area to find employment and continue on their quest of earning citizenship in the United States, which they estimate will take another five years.

They are also looking at adding just a few thousand more miles of travel into their schedule if they are able to fit it in, as they’d like to take a trip back to Ethiopia, a country they haven’t visited since their move to the States almost 15 years ago.

It’s a place that means a lot to them. And given their obviously close relationship, they’d love to go back – and go back in the only way possible.