Ten years ago, 8,318 miles away from Seattle in the Oromo Region of Ethiopia, Tibebu “Tibs” Proctor was running after monkeys. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
In the small village of Babobadoye where he was born and spent the early years of his childhood, the animals on his family’s farm were simply pests and it was his job to take scare them away.
“It’s going to sound silly, but I really was chasing monkeys,” Proctor said. “[Our family] had a farm, and when the plants grew, the monkeys would come out of a gorge nearby. My job was to keep the monkeys in the gorge.”
A decade later, Proctor is still running, only now he’s chasing finish lines instead of animals. A sophomore at the University of Washington, he has become one of the most exciting young talents in distance running after coming off a breakout cross country season.
He is also excelling academically, and has his eye on dental school.
And yet, his story is so much more than just that of an up-and-coming athlete or a student or an immigrant. The way that Proctor has handled all of these aspects of his life is what makes his story unique.
Tibs Proctor is an athlete. When he first arrived in America with his brother Tamirat, his mother Monja Proctor asked the boys what sport they wanted to play. They chose soccer, and, despite never having played an organized game the pair took to it immediately.
Proctor spent time in the Seattle Sounders Pre-Academy and the Crossfire Premier Club development team before eventually finding himself at Seattle United. Hoping to stay in shape for soccer, he joined the cross country team as a freshman at The Northwest School.
“When I got there, the cross country coach said, ‘Hey you should try running, this thing called cross country,’” Proctor said. “I had no clue what cross country was, like, was it running across the country? But he told me it involved running and I met up with the team.”
For the first two years of high school, Proctor did both. He trained year-round for soccer, and when cross country season began he would temporarily pivot. When his junior year approached however, Proctor knew he had to choose. And though his soccer coach said he had the potential to earn a scholarship, he felt cross country and distance running would be a better path.
“Soccer, I had to work for,” he said. “Cross country and running, it just came easy.”
Proctor decided to focus on running and immediately won consecutive high school state titles. That ultimately led him to Washington, where he had a decent freshman year before bursting onto the scene in 2018, culminating in a 38th place finish at the National Championships that earned him the first All-American honors of his career.
“He’s just got a great attitude, he’s just always happy, always smiling, so he’s a great guy to have around,” Washington Track and Field head coach Andy Powell said. “He runs the most mileage on our team, works extremely hard, and he’s just got this engine where he can just keep running and running and running. He’s a great kid to coach.”
Tibs Proctor is a student. When the NCAA states that all its athletes are student-athletes, he epitomizes what that means. The sophomore currently majors in biology and aspires to become a dentist.
When Proctor first arrived at Washington, he was almost too eager to take things on, and ended up registering for three STEM classes at once. The combination of school and running ended up being too much, which resulted in him dropping a course.
“Tibs may be the only distance runner I’ve had in my class, and I’ve taught over 15,000 students.” said Scott Freeman, principal lecturer in the University of Washington biology department.
The class was a 15-credit total immersion accelerated introductory biology course offered during the summer. It’s essentially a year’s worth of class stuffed into 10 weeks; Freeman says it is “all bio, all day, every day.”
For 10 weeks, all Proctor did was eat, sleep, run and study. The adjustments paid off and he passed.
“[He’s got] perseverance and metacognition — the ability to think about your studying and learning, to self-regulate,” Freeman said.
He’s kept that discipline as he continues to balance running and school. This winter, for example, one of his required classes was at the same time as the team’s morning practice. Instead of running with his teammates and putting off the course until later, Tibs met with the coaches at 7 a.m. to get his morning workout in by himself before class started.
“It just shows how dedicated he is to both running and academics,” Powell said. “We’re always thrilled to see someone excel both in the classroom and be an all-American as well.”
Despite the years of school still ahead of him, Proctor already has a plan. Once he graduates from college, he intends to forfeit any potential career in running to enter dentistry school.
“The interest in dentistry started during high school,” Monja Proctor said. “He couldn’t eat sandwiches at lunchtime and had a hard time eating pizza. I finally realized he probably needed braces and thus started a 2- to 3-year period of frequent visits to the orthodontist and dentist. Tibs has always had a warm, friendly, easy smile, and I think he enjoys being able to share that with others.”
Tibs Proctor is a brother, an immigrant, and an orphan. Proctor’s biological parents died when he was very young, and though he has flashes of them in his memories, he says he never really knew them. Instead, he spent his early years being raised by his siblings. Proctor is the second youngest of eight children; four brothers and two sisters, all of whom are older and still live in Ethiopia.
It was on the family’s farm that Proctor chased monkeys, but even with him chipping in, it eventually became too expensive for them to all stay. Hoping to give his younger brother a better life, their older brother Girma gave Tamirat up for adoption. But Tamirat, who was 6, didn’t do well at the local orphanage. So when Girma asked the 8-year-old Tibs if he would consider going too, there was only one answer.
“I told him, ‘Of course I’ll go,’” Proctor said. “I was scared for Tamirat, too, so I went with him.”
After spending a couple of weeks in the local orphanage, the brothers were sent to a bigger one in Addis Ababa. And though they grew up speaking Oromo in Babobadoye, in the capital they had to learn how to speak Amharic.
After a year in Addis Ababa, they met Monja. A pediatric surgeon, she had been working and teaching at a local hospital when she first encountered the boys. While she hadn’t considered adopting children before, Tibs and Tamirat stuck out.
“They were very quiet, surrounded by children and adults who spoke a foreign language,” Monja said. “But they had totally infectious shy smiles which lit up with soccer, games, meals, cameras and music.”
Monja adopted the boys and brought them back to Seattle. For the first few months they were in America, Tibs and Tamirat simply stayed at home learning their third language in two years: English. Monja spoke no Amharic or Oromo, and the family had to use hand gestures to understand each other.
Word-by-word, the brothers began picking up pieces of the language as they prepared to go to school for the first time in their lives. Tibs started classes, but he found that he still didn’t have enough English to get by.
“I went into fifth grade and I didn’t know what was going on,” Proctor said. “Students were talking and I didn’t know what they were saying. Kids would come up to me and I was just really confused. The other students were already ahead and I didn’t even speak English.”
Using the patience and willpower that would someday help him pass biology at the University of Washington, Proctor learned to speak English.
After living in America for the last decade, he admits that he is starting to forget Amharic and Oromo, though he is confident that, if he was dropped back into Ethiopia, he would remember quickly.
That could come sooner rather than later. Another reason Proctor wants to become a dentist has to do with him wanting to join Dentists Without Borders and travel the world.
“I want to help people, and dentistry is a way to do that,” he said. “Especially in Africa, where I lived, we didn’t have a dentist or any of the equipment we have here and it felt like a way to give back.”
It’s a lofty goal. Yet, if anyone can do it, Tibs Proctor — the monkey-chasing, immigrant, all-American, orphan, distance-running biology major — can.