Before Mead (Fairwood, Wash.) grad Andrew Gardner developed into one of the nation’s top prep distance athletes, running was hardly recreational for the Ethiopia native.
Gardner was being raised in Wolaita in south-central Ethiopia prior to being adopted from an orphanage and moving to the United States at age 9. In Ethiopia, he lived in a mud hut and spent his childhood running around barefoot pulling weeds, fertilizing corn and collecting firewood. He’d also pick coffee beans, mangoes and avocados, which he sold at the market.
“I felt like I was born running,” said Gardner, whose birth name is Fikadu Ayala.
His career path – the next step will be the University of Washington to compete in cross country and track and pursue a nursing degree – is haunted and inspired by life at the orphanage. Gardner said he was separated from his sister, who died of an esophageal obstruction, according to Gardner’s adoptive father.
“When my sister passed away, it was a symbol. It could have been stopped,” said Gardner, who eventually plans to return to Ethiopia to work in clinics and assist doctors. “That’s what encouraged me to want to become a nurse and go back. I want to help in as many ways as I can.”
Said Mead cross country coach Steve Kiesel, “He’s more than an athlete. He’s always had a great leadership quality.”
Recently, Gardner returned from a 16-day humanitarian trip to his homeland where he helped deliver clothes and school supplies. Prior to the trip, Gardner helped stage a 5K race held on Mead’s cross country course to raise funds for the purchase of 31 donkeys, which cost $150 each and were given to widowed women in Ethiopia to help transport and sell water and wood at markets. The trip, he said, was eye-opening.
“I was in so much shock when I got there,” said Gardner, who hadn’t been in contact with anyone in Ethiopia for several years. “It was a great chance to experience my past and see people who took care of me.”
The life he witnessed is one that could have been his — and it was for a time. Gardner didn’t have electricity or a shower growing up. He relied on candlelight and a small gas lamp at night, and said he bathed in a river four miles from his hut. Before moving to the States, he’d never seen a car.
“I was always on my feet," Gardner said. "We didn’t have a bike or a car, so everywhere you went, running made it easier, and you got there faster.”
The three-mile trek to school only nurtured his running ability, which later proved to be a gift. Gardner said he relied on the sun as nature’s alarm clock. If ever he thought he’d be late, his usual walk became “the fastest run of my life” to avoid getting his arms slapped by teachers.
Making it to school on time may have taxed him physically, but Gardner said nothing could have prepared him for the emotional challenge when, as a second-grader, he was sent to Kidane Mehret Children’s Home in Addis Ababa. He didn’t speak the language nor did he know anyone. He lived in the orphanage for nine months before being adopted by Steve and Michelle Gardner of Spokane, Wash. He is one of 12 kids in the Gardner family — nine are adopted (six from Ethiopia and one each from China, Russia and India).
According to Gardner’s adoptive father, Andrew adjusted rapidly and well in his new environment.
"He’s had to work hard to get his grades, and he did really well,” he said. "When he decides to do something, he pursues it with a passion,” Steve Gardner said.
Gardner’s first pair of running shoes — hand-me-down adidas Supernovas — also were foreign, but he quickly put them to use when he was formally introduced to cross country in junior high.
He admitted of the initial experience, “I didn’t find it fun. When I ran when I was younger, there was a purpose for it. Running from gun to finish, I didn’t find a reason why I was running.”
But he soon realized it as a freshman at Mead. Gardner made varsity after chasing down the leader during his first 5K race. He caught up to him during the last 400 meters, slipped and fell, but bounced back to toe the line first in 16 minutes, 36 seconds. Later that season, he qualified for state and placed eighth.
Gardner’s success and passion only grew throughout his prep career. And by his senior season he won the Class 4A individual state championship for cross country, smoking the course with a time of 15:02.3 — 14 seconds ahead of the competition. He topped his season at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, where he placed 11th.
This past February at the USA Cross Country Championships in St. Louis, Gardner’s 24:52.6 time in the Junior Men’s 8K placed him sixth, which gave him a spot on Team USA men’s junior roster for the World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland. He placed 42nd of 155 runners in the men’s junior 8K.
“He’s been blessed," said Andrew's adoptive father, "and he has all these opportunities so he doesn’t want to squander them."