Xcel Energy Center has become Michael Suda’s home away from home in the wrestling postseason. The senior from Pipestone High School is seeking his third state championship this weekend, making the 200-mile drive from southwest Minnesota to St. Paul with three teammates who also qualified for state.
That distance is nothing, considering how far Suda has come. As a child in Ethiopia his name was Muluken. He came to America as an 8-yard-old who couldn’t speak English, became Michael, and his journey of more than 7,000 miles, nine time zones and two vastly different worlds is a remarkable story.
His parents -- father Abebe and mother Zewdenesh – wanted a better life for their son and his little sister Hermella. They made a difficult choice and put them up for adoption. A couple in Pipestone, Marcia and Todd Suda, saw a photo of the two kids and the adoption process began. When Michael and Hermella arrived in Minnesota, it wasn’t exactly what they had envisioned.
“I guess when I was in Africa I thought of America as being big cities, big buildings,” Michael said. “I came here and it was kind of a shock; they didn’t have fences around their houses, everything was out in the open. It was a little different.”
He laughs about being so homesick at first that he packed a bag and began walking back to Ethiopia. But as he settled into his new life, especially sports with other kids in the town of 4,000, everything began to change.
Michael has twice qualified for the state cross-country championships, finishing as high as ninth in Class 1A. He’s also a distance runner on the Arrows track and field team. Wrestling, however, became his thing. He went to a youth camp after being in Pipestone for about a year and liked it, but needed to convince his adoptive parents to let him continue.
“I didn’t even really know much English at the time and I was home-schooled,” he said. “They didn’t want me to get bullied or anything, they were a little protective.”
With help from what he called “a lot of people,” including kids and adults, he became a wrestler.
“Back in Africa I used to grapple with friends, just kind of fighting,” he said. “I thought it was cool as a sport, I just enjoyed it.”
He first qualified for the Class 1A state tournament as an eighth-grader and finished fifth at 113 pounds. He lost in the championship round as a ninth-grader and has won two state titles since then at 120 and 126 pounds. He’s in the 126-pound division this weekend, as is another defending state champion, Blake Legred of United South Central, who won at 106 as a junior last year. (Pictured are Pipestone state qualifiers Grant Budden, Garrett Ploeger, Hunter Burnett, Suda and coach Brian Bos.)
Michael defeated Crosby-Ironton’s Nate Williams 17-6 in the opening round of competition Thursday, then beat Cole Rasmussen of Triton 20-10 in the quarterfinals.
Suda’s title-round loss as a freshman provided a sense of purpose.
“He wasn’t very satisfied with that, he expected more out of himself,” said Pipestone coach Brian Bos. “He’s always been highly motivated and driven.”
That defeat not only provided motivation in wrestling, but in Suda’s other sports, as well.
“That lit a fire in me,” he said. “I just worked really hard in all my sports. I think that actually is what drove me in track and cross-country. I came into the next wrestling season, cleaned up my technique, became a smarter wrestler, got stronger. There were a lot of things that went into it. It was the process that made it worthwhile. When I got my hand raised (as a state champion), it was an amazing feeling to better myself and make it happen.”
Suda is joined at this week’s tournament by classmates Hunter Burnett (also a two-time state champ) and Garrett Ploeger (at state for the third time) and sophomore Grant Budden (second time at state).
Suda and Burnett, who is competing at 132 pounds, have worked out with each other for years now, and if all goes well both will conclude their Pipestone careers as three-time state champs. They will continue wrestling together at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D.
“He and Hunter have worked together and been creative, working on techniques,” Bos said. “They kind of feed off each other and keep each other grounded. They know what their job is and they take care of business.”
Burnett also won his first match Thursday with a technical fall over Nolan Rommel of Wabasha-Kellogg and then pinned Shawn Rue of Paynesville in the third period to reach Saturday's semifinals. Ploeger also won twice Friday to reach the semifinals at 170 pounds. He pinned Thomas Battcher of Sibley East and recorded an 11-5 decision over Michael Nelson of Dover-Eyota.
Michael is part of a big family in Pipestone. Along with Michael and Hermella, Marcia and Todd Suba have six other children: David, James, Rachel, Jonathan, Grace and Anna. “It’s pretty crazy,” Michael said, laughing. (The Suda family is pictured from several years ago.)
Michael has not returned to Ethiopia since coming to America, and his biological parents have not been able to travel here to see Michael and Hermella. They talk on the telephone with their family in Africa, but Michael and Hermella – who came to the U.S. unable to speak English – now speak only English so a translator is needed to help them communicate with their family in Africa.
One thing is certain: The boy who came to America as Muluken before becoming Michael considers himself to be very lucky.
“For sure,” he said. “I could be in a totally different place. My family that adopted me, the coaches who took me in, there are a lot of great people in Pipestone, a lot of families that took me in and put me on the right path.”Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn