From a mud hut in Ethiopia to a home in Oak Park, life has been a journey for one OPRF student-athlete

Sentayehu "Ty" Fleming (Photos By J.Geil)

Oak Park, Illinois – This is not an ordinary story, simply because Sintayehu “Ty” Fleming is not an ordinary teenager.

To start from the beginning would be too conventional, and there’s been nothing too conventional about the first 18 years of this kid’s life. We begin here and now with Ty in his senior year at Oak Park and River Forest High School. He has just finished placing second in his weight class (138 pounds) at the junior varsity conference wrestling meet.

“It’s satisfying,” he says, “but not too satisfying. I could have done better. Overall, I’d say it was a successful season.”

Before long, he’ll go home and help get his three younger siblings fed and put to bed. He’ll clear the table, wash the dishes, take the trash out, walk the dog. He’ll prepare the medicine his brother and sister must take every day because they’re HIV positive. He’ll plug his mind into a book on philosophy (John Locke) or a medical journal. He’ll then go to bed and be up again at 5 a.m. to walk to school, work out, and receive extra help from teachers. If it’s the weekend, he’ll take his siblings to the park. Ty Fleming is not your average teen.

While others listened to their iPods or chatted up the latest pop culture craze on the bus trips to wrestling meets throughout the season, Ty would usually be busy studying.

“He would have his face planted in a book between matches if he could,” says OPRF head wrestling coach Mike Powell. “He’s got grit. He’s a true survivor. And the best thing about it is he knows where he’s going.”

Ty is going to college and then, hopefully, medical school and then, hopefully, back to Ethiopia, where he was born and spent the first six years of his life — a difficult six years. Back then he didn’t have any idea where he was going.

It is custom in Ethiopia for a young son to wash his father’s hands before a meal. Ty remembers doing this in the hut made of mud and straw where he lived in the village of Bahir Dar. That’s about it as far as any memory of his father, who died in the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the 1990s when Ty was 4. His mother remarried but died a year later while giving birth in the hut made of mud and straw. Ty remembers this too.