Deng leads young generation of middle distance runners

Freshman Goaner Deng is making an impact in his first competitive season with the Gophers.

Minnesota's Goaner Deng runs the 600-meter dash on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, at the University Fieldhouse.

Jaak Jensen, Daily File Photo

Minnesota’s Goaner Deng runs the 600-meter dash on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, at the University Fieldhouse.

Megan Ryan

Redshirt freshman Goaner Deng competed last month in the 4×400-meter relay at the NCAA indoor championships, an honorable accomplishment in his first competitive season with the Gophers.

But the proudest moment of his track and field career may have come last outdoor season when he finally raced in an 800-meter run and was officially inducted into the Gophers’ middle-distance “MD” Mafia.

Deng is spearheading the youngest generation of the middle-distance runners — a group with a strong tradition of success at Minnesota. Last year, senior Harun Abda and recent graduate David Pachuta competed at both indoor and outdoor national meets as well as at the U.S. Olympic trials.

Deng said having role models like Abda and Pachuta helped him improve during his redshirt season last year.

“They just kind of grabbed us by the ear and showed us everything and [said], ‘this is how we’re going to do it, and this is how you’re going to get better,’” Deng said.

Deng started seriously running his sophomore year in high school and battled injuries in his high school career. Assistant coach Paul Thornton decided to redshirt him to give him more time to develop.

Deng said initially he wasn’t excited about redshirting, but he realizes now how it helped him be more successful this year.

“The redshirt year really teaches you a lot about yourself,” he said.

Deng won six events this indoor season and had top-three finishes in the 4×400 and distance medley relays at the Big Ten indoor championships. He finished 12th in the 4×400 at the NCAA indoor championships.

But his success in his first competitive season didn’t surprise the team.

“We get a chance to watch him run every single day,” Thornton said. “So the type of things … we’re seeing out of him out of each meet does not shock us at all.”

Deng said he’s still learning from the upperclassmen — who still play jokes on him.

As a captain and senior, Abda said he tries his best to mentor the younger generation and keep the history of middle-distance success alive. But he said part of Deng’s success comes from just enjoying being on the track and around the team.

“He’s having fun,” Abda said. “He’s one of those guys who just doesn’t stress himself or he jokes around. He gets along with everyone.”

Abda said Deng’s also a man of many nicknames, like “Indiana Goans” and “Go Daddy Go.”

But as he approaches the 400-meter hurdles event in the upcoming outdoor season, his teammates might have given him the most fitting nickname — “Daddy Long Leg.”