When 10-year-old Liem Chot landed in Lincoln, Neb., he felt the crisp winter air for the first time.

After a 21-hour flight from Uganda, Chot and his two older brothers were greeted by cold weather as they reached the United States with plans to live with their eldest sister, Nyanthiay Chot — even though they barely knew her.

“She was the last mother figure in the Chot family,” Liem said. “We just wanted to join her in the U.S., and then also have the same opportunity for a better life.”

Prior to their reunion in the states, the Chot family experienced familial strife in Africa. Born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, Liem lost both of his parents at a young age. His father was shot and killed in a tribal war and his mother died during childbirth, along with the child she was carrying.

“I was very young, I don’t remember much,” Liem said of his time in Africa. “There’s a lot of spicy foods, there’s a bad government, a lot of noises, and a lot of crimes in that area.”

Although Nyanthiay was only 23 years old when she became the Chot family’s lifeline, Liem’s circumstances did improve with his sister. He advanced his education, discovered cross country, and earned a scholarship to Temple University.

It was difficult for Liem to leave his support system in Nebraska. But he quickly found his second family within the Owls’ cross country program.

In his first season, the 6-foot-3 runner finished in 58th place of 174 competitors at the Mid-Atlantic Regionals on Nov. 12 with a time of 32 minutes, 16.2 seconds in the 10K.

“This year alone, I’m just feeling things out,” Liem said. “Knowing what it takes to get to what I love and every time I race, I get a sense of what I need to do to be with those top guys.”

Discovering a passion

Liem was in fifth grade when he started school in the U.S. He easily adapted to a new language, curriculum, and lifestyle. On the playground, Liem found his niche in soccer and impressed one of his teachers, who bought him cleats for the YMCA soccer team.

Liem started running cross country, by chance, in seventh grade, hopping on the team because his brother, Goanar, ran as a senior for North Lincoln Star High School.

“Initially, [Liem] really wasn’t a big running fan,” said Matt Musiel, the cross country and track coach at North Lincoln. “We joked that he had dreams of playing in the NBA.”

Musiel, who ran cross country at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D., noticed Liem’s potential but knew his commitment was minimal.

“We laughed about it over his career,” Musiel said, “but he actually missed the first day of cross country practice.”

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Musiel almost immediately drove to the Chot family apartment and told Goanar that Liem’s talent would go to waste if he didn’t join the team. The next day, Liem was at practice.

Liem finished 23rd at the Nebraska state championships as a freshman and soon stopped playing basketball.

“We talked about school and the opportunities with getting an education paid for,” Musiel said. “Running could take him places that a lot of kids don’t get an opportunity [to go].”

Liem won his first state championship as a sophomore. He followed that up by winning two more state titles and being named Nebraska Boys Cross Country Gatorade Player of the Year in back-to-back years. By the end of his senior season, Liem was the best cross country runner in state history with 22 wins in 33 races.

Musiel supported Liem every step of the way. But the coach did not only help develop Liem as an athlete. He also helped care for the Chot family.

“I knew [Liem] needed a new bed,” Musiel said. “He was sleeping on an old mattress, his feet were probably hanging off the edge and we loaded up the box springs and mattress and took it to his apartment. He got a new bed.”

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Musiel wanted to offer a hand because he knew how hard Nyanthiay worked to keep a roof over their heads.

“The Chots have been through a lot,” Musiel said, “though they’re the last ones to complain about anything.”

As Liem received college offers during his senior year, Musiel mentioned Temple’s program, which is about 1,250 miles away from Lincoln.

While Temple was far from home, the Chot family listened. They always valued Musiel’s opinion. When Liem had the opportunity to talk with Temple cross country coach James Snyder, there was an instant connection.

“He’s just been in the back of my mind ever since,” Liem said. “I remember having a chat with Snyder and his training philosophies resonated really well with my high school coach training.”

In early February 2020, Liem committed to Temple with the goal of qualifying for the NCAA championships before graduation.

In the meantime, Liem goes into every race with the goal of becoming better than the guy in front of him.