How EKU’s Ahmed Jaziri became an NCAA champion nearly 5,000 miles from home

Ahmed Jaziri never thought he would find himself in Richmond, Kentucky.

But when EKU track and field coach Cory Erdmann offered him a spot on his roster, Jaziri made the nearly 5,000-mile journey from his hometown of Rades, Tunisia.

Coach Erdmann took notice of Jaziri back in 2018, when Jaziri ran at the Mediterranean Games. Erdmann contacted Jaziri about competing at EKU, and the rest is history. The move paid off in June when he became EKU’s first steeplechase NCAA champion.

“I’m so proud to be the first EKU athlete to win the NCAA steeplechase title,” Jaziri said. “There are no words to describe my feelings. It’s a dream come true.”

To make Jaziri’s title even more impressive, his winning time was the second-fastest in NCAA championships history (and the fastest since 1979). Jaziri’s success not only brings him attention, but it shines a spotlight on EKU’s cross country program, as well.

“It was the one thing we hadn’t accomplished,” Erdmann said. “We’ve had a lot of success across the board. But we’ve never had a national champion in steeplechase, we’ve had five or six runners up. Anytime you get to that level, it brings us that recognition that you don’t otherwise have. I think it helps recruit both internationally and domestically. It brings kids who are interested in track, and particularly in distance running, from Kentucky, surrounding states and beyond. It lets them look at Eastern Kentucky a little bit differently.”

Living in and training in Kentucky has not always been easy for Jaziri.

“My first semester was different. It was hard for me to adapt in a new culture, in a new country,” he said. “It was hard to live in America because of the coronavirus.”

But after a rocky first semester, Jaziri was able to improve his English communication skills by talking to his professors more. (Fun fact: English is actually his third language, in addition to Arabic and French.)

“Everyone has a learning curve,” Erdmann said. “It’s much deeper when you’re coming from in from a culture that’s very different from ours. He’s come a long way. It took a long time for him to figure out school, food, language and training.”

But Jaziri’s doing just fine now. He goes bowling in his free time and enjoys eating barbecue. He has a few Mediterranean and Indian restaurants that he likes.

While Jaziri has built a life for himself in Richmond, he’s on the fence about a possible return to EKU. Jaziri ran in his first World Championships in July — he placed 10th in his heat and did not qualify for the finals — and is considering turning pro.

“It was a good experience,” Jaziri said. “But I expected better than my performance. Sometimes you have to accept it and look for the next championships.”