He takes stairs two at time. At 6’3″, the Varsity Blues senior weight thrower moves with surprising grace. In one fluid movement, he folds himself into a couch that suddenly seems comically small. He keeps his Varsity Blues toque on.
Ezana Debalkew is a fourth-year computer science student at UTSC and a star weight thrower on the U of T Varsity Blues track team. He sits down with me to talk about his sport, school, and how he stays motivated.
Like all great stories, his begins with puberty. In middle school, Debalkew was always bigger than the other kids — so much so that coaches took notice. “They were like, ‘Come, throw these things far,’ and then I ended up being okay at it,” he shares, laughing. As it turns out, he started to enjoy it.
He stuck with weight throw, eventually parsing down his considerable athletic involvement to focus solely on throwing. While he was still in high school, he began his commuting saga, trekking down from Markham to train in U of T’s JV track program. Ezana now competes in shot put and weight throw, the main indoor events for throwing, and outdoors he performs in discus and hammer throw.
He is quick to emphasize how much enjoys the sport. “It’s fun!” says Debalkew. “The team is great, the meets are always fun…watching everyone compete”
Even though weight throw is an individual sport, Ezana stresses his connection to the track team as a whole. This year he focused on increasing integration between athletes who perform different track events — getting sprinters to hang out with pole vaulters and long distance runners with long jumpers.
It’s clear that Debalkew is well-suited to his mediator role. He settles into conversation easily, making everyone he interacts with feel comfortable, and he is kindly self-deprecating. It’s easy to imagine him walking around during a chaotic track practice, carrying his little bag, greeting his teammates enthusiastically, a sturdy eye of calm in the swirling storm of a track oval.
Debalkew doesn’t take himself too seriously, but his dedication to his sport and teammates runs beneath his lightheartedness. Once he begins explaining his schedule, it becomes even more obvious. “It’s a really big commitment,” he says. “You have to commute [to UTSG] for training, commute back, you also have to do like your lifts outside of commuting and training.” And that’s just the athletic component of his life — Ezana also has to worry about school, seeing friends, and performing the everyday mundanities that seem to eat up so much time — laundry, anyone?. How does he do it? Ezana smiles sheepishly when I ask. “I don’t know, I like to see things through. I have goals in mind, like I want to be at a certain place and I’m not there yet so I want to be able to reach that place and achieve the goals that I have,” he explains. “It’s one thing to accomplish something on your own and stuff, but also when you’re accomplishing stuff with like a great group of guys, it’s even that much better because you’re all sharing this one moment.”
Last year, he tells me, he hit a personal best at a meet. It meant a lot to him to “share that moment with the entire team.” Debalkew also mentions that he hopes to win his event at the (Ontario University Athletics) Championship. A few weeks after we talk, the OUAs arrive, and he finishes first in weight throw with an impressive 17.51m throw. At the U SPORTS championship two weeks later, Debalkew finishes third.
He’s nervous but excited for his future competitions. “I love feeling nervous,” says Debalkew, “it gives you that energy you need to go that extra bit.” Besides his participating in his own events, Ezana also loves watching his teammates compete. “The atmosphere [at meets] is great, it’s just a bunch of kids, a bunch of athletes — that’s the best thing with track too, you can watch pole vault and jumps, throws, a lot of different action.”
Debalkew’s athletic mentality is important in other areas of his life too. “There’s always injuries, there’s always roadblocks, so you have to be able to kinda get over those roadblocks,” he explains. Even though he’s never been seriously injured, Debalkew’s faced plateaus, poor performances, and other disappointments. Just like with school, Ezana says you “kinda see like a couple of steps ahead and see where you wanna be” and focus on that. Putting one step in front of the other, from the track oval, to the subway, to UTSC, and back again. “Not everything always goes your way,” he says. “You need to be able to handle it.”
Debalkew stresses the importance of time management. “You really have to look out a week in advance. Your time is almost like weeks now, instead of days,” he explains. “Try to get stuff early, stay on top of it, get some stuff done on the subway, if you can, like me. It’s just time management.” It also helps to have good friends in your program or classes to rely on. “If you have good people in your classes it helps a lot if you miss anything for a competition or whatnot — it makes a huge difference.”
After university, he isn’t sure what role weight throw will play in his life. “There’s not much money in athletics to begin with, so unless you’re at like the elite level and getting sponsored and stuff you’re not gonna be able to make a living,” explains Debalkew. He’d like to keep at it, but more as a hobby than anything else.
He adds that it’ll probably be time to “practice his [Computer Science] degree,” and maybe train at night. After having worked a computer science co-op job last summer while training at night, Debalkew is used to juggling multiple responsibilities. He won’t rule out coaching, either. “You get to see the progression of someone and you feel like you can help someone progress from where they are to where they can be.”