The silver medal earned by Meb Keflezighi at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, represented a renaissance for distance running in the United States: Keflezghi's was the first American Olympic medal in the marathon since the silver medal earned by Frank Shorter in 1976. Keflezighi's medal was more than simply an American athletic triumph; it was also a demonstration of the resilience of the human spirit. Rising from a background of poverty and the violence of war, Keflezighi was a survivor in more ways than one. "I have seen and dealt with a lot more than the average person," Keflezighi told the San Diego Union Tribune. "Does it make me tougher? To a point it does."
Mebrahtom Keflezighi—the first name means "let there be light" and the last name is pronounced Ka-FLEZ-ghee—was born in Eritrea, 15 miles from the city of Asmara, on May 5, 1975. One of 10 children, he grew up without electricity or running water. He ran away from the first car he saw as a child, and when he first encountered a television set he wondered how people could be fit into such a small box. His daily chores included caring for the family cattle herd and gathering firewood. Keflezighi's grandfather could tell time by looking at the sun.
Pulled Corpses from
During his youth, Eritrea was in the midst of a long guerrilla war of independence from neighboring Ethiopia, and the fighting impinged severely on the lives of the Keflezighi family. Keflezighi's older brothers had to be on the lookout for Ethiopian army troops, who were known for kidnapping and conscripting teenage boys for military service. When they heard troops were on the way, the Keflezighis scattered and hid in nearby fields. In Asmara one day, Keflezighi, still a child, had to help remove corpses from a building after an explosion.
Facing these obstacles, Keflezighi's father decided to leave his homeland. He walked 600 miles to the nation of Sudan and worked there for a time. Then, with the help of a relative, he moved to Milan, Italy. The family joined him there and on October 12, 1987, when Keflezighi was 12, they moved on to San Diego, California, in search of better educational opportunities for the Keflezighi children. One of Keflezighi's sisters would go on to attend medical school at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), and another sister went to law school there. Five siblings earned college degrees.
With little ability to speak English, Keflezighi was miserable at first. Classmates teased him about his unusual clothes. He and his brothers had learned to play soccer in Italy, and he dreamed of following in the footsteps of the Brazilian soccer superstar Pele. In a seventh-grade physical education class at San Diego's Roosevelt Middle School, however, he entered a running contest and ran a mile in an impressive 5 minutes, 20 seconds.
His teacher called a local high school coach who had guided a young runner to an Olympic appearance, and Keflezighi was given the chance to train seriously. Within two years he had shaved nearly a minute off his mile time and was winning local track titles. As a senior at San Diego High School, Keflezighi placed second in the nationwide Foot Locker National Cross-Country Championships.
Earned Track Scholarship
Moving on to UCLA in 1994 on a track and field scholarship, Keflezighi benefited from one of the top college track programs in the United States as he began working with coach Bob Larsen. Keflezighi became the winningest runner in UCLA history, notching a series of titles that began in his freshman year. As a junior in 1997, Keflezighi won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) indoor 5,000-meter championship and went on to capture both the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter outdoor crowns later that year.
The year 1998 was a landmark one for Keflezighi as he graduated from UCLA, became a U.S. citizen, and became the first winner of the annual Carl Lewis Award, given to the country's top male track and field athlete. He made his debut on the international running stage when he won the U.S. Olympic trials in 2000 at the 10,000-meter distance and went to Sydney, Australia, to represent his new country in the Olympics. Finishing in a personal-best 27 minutes and 53.63 seconds, he placed 12th despite coming down with the flu shortly before the race.
Keflezighi went on to set a new American record at 10,000 meters on May 4, 2001 at California's Stanford University, with a time of 27 minutes, 13.98 seconds. In order to take his career to the next stage he began working once again with Larsen, by then retired from his job at UCLA. Keflezighi took up residence at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, close to San Diego. Part of his training involved running on trails on California's Mammoth Mountain, a hot, dry course of desert hills that would serve him well when he faced a similar environment in Athens.
Keflezighi took up mountain running on the advice of then-marathon world record-holder Haile Gebreselassie of Kenya, and he soon bought a home near Mammoth Mountain and split his time between there and Chula Vista. One of Keflezighi's training partners on Mammoth Mountain was 2004 Olympic women's marathon bronze medalist Deena Kastor. After his training sessions, Keflezighi would stand in a freezing cold stream that came down from higher in the mountains in order to reduce the inflammation in his leg muscles from the pounding they took on 20-mile training runs.
Ran in New York to Support City
While he was still in high school, Keflezighi had been told by a top San Diego marathon runner that he had natural ability at the 26.2-mile distance, but he had never followed up on the suggestion. As the 2002 New York Marathon approached, however, Keflezighi was looking to new challenges after winning national championships at the distances of 12,000 and 15,000 meters. He registered for the New York race, choosing it over the flatter and faster Chicago marathon partly to show support for his adopted country after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. "I'm glad I'm an American," Keflezighi told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I want to do what I can for New York."
At a Glance …
Career: Long distance runner, 1994–; has competed in national and international running events since 1998; represented the United States in the Olympic Games, 2000, 2004.
Awards: National collegiate champion, 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter distances, 1997-98; silver medal in marathon, 2004 Olympics, Athens, Greece.
Address: Home— Mira Mesa, CA. Training Center— ARCO U.S. Olympic Training Center, 2800 Olympic Pkwy., Chula Vista, CA 91915.
Although he had never even run a half-marathon race, Keflezighi, in his first marathon on November 3, 2002, became the top U.S. finisher with a time of 2 hours, 12 minutes, and 35 seconds. He placed ninth overall, a fine showing for a first-timer. Although his first words after finishing (according to the Marathon & Beyond Web site) were "Well, that was my first and last marathon," he soon began looking toward the 2004 Olympics. But he took time off for a trip to Eritrea later in 2002, the first time he had been back there in 17 years.
He found himself a national celebrity as a crowd of 60,000 at a cycling race chanted his name as he jogged around the final lap of the course. Keflezighi met relatives who had been wounded in the long war against Ethiopia, and remembered some who had been killed. "Sometimes people ask me what it takes to be a No. 1 distance runner," Keflezighi told the Union-Tribune. "It's about a work ethic. Eritreans know about sacrifice." He had brought 50 T-shirts and about 15 pairs of shoes as souvenirs for family members. "But they were most delighted to see me," he recalled to the Union-Tribune. "It wasn't about the T-shirts."
Indeed, a lot of people enjoyed Meb Keflezighi's company. "Anybody who knows Meb loves him," Larsen told the Marathon & Beyond Web site. "He's one of the most likeable guys around." "Everyone in the family is like that," added teammate Deena Kastor, "and the credit goes to his parents. To have come from such extreme conditions and such a hostile environment, and to somehow be able to raise children as strong, independent, and educated as they are, is pretty incredible."
Keflezighi ran a blazing 2 hours, 10 minutes, and 3 seconds in the Chicago Marathon in October of 2003. Training for the 2004 Olympic Marathon trials in Birmingham, Alabama, Keflezighi faced a series of problems—possibly because he had taken a complete four-week break after the Chicago race. Plagued by tendinitis in both knees, he also suffered from a bout with the flu over the Christmas season. By the February 7 trials, however, Keflezighi was rested and ready. He finished second, five seconds behind winner Alan Culpepper. He returned to training on Mammoth Mountain, paced by cyclists and squads of freshly rested runners. He worked up to a schedule of 130 miles of running per week.
Arriving in Athens in August, Keflezighi shrugged off the hilly course, paralleling the route of the original marathon run by ancient Greek military messenger Pheidippides, that had intimidated other runners. "Those are not hills," he told Larsen (according to Marathon & Beyond ). "From what you guys have prepared us for, those are not hills." Keflezighi began conservatively, bringing up the rear for the first mile of the race. But he shadowed the group of leaders throughout the race's midsection and found himself in fourth place with five miles to go. Unscathed by a bizarre incident in which Brazilian leader Vanderlei Lima was attacked by a spectator, Keflezighi made a move for the front.
Won Olympic Silver Medal
For a time, Keflezighi considered going for the gold, a risky move that might have led to no medal at all instead. He finished in 2 hours, 11 minutes, and 29 seconds, in second place, 34 seconds behind Italian winner Stefano Baldini. U.S. running fans were ecstatic after the long medal drought. "USA running is back!" Keflezighi exclaimed to the Denver Post. At the start of the race, 38 runners had notched faster personal-best marathon times than Keflezighi, and his silver medal was widely regarded as a stunner. "Was it a surprise? Maybe," the runner told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "But I don't think it was to me. My plan was to be in the top three."
That characteristic confidence showed through once again as Keflezighi entered the New York City Marathon in November of 2004, just three months after the Olympics; top runners usually rest for six months or so between major races. "Can Meb recover in 70 days?" Keflezighi (who often refers to himself in the third person) asked the Union-Tribune. "People say you can't do it. According to who? We will see." A hefty appearance bonus speculated to be in the low six figures, plus a shot at hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money played a role in his decision, but so did the fact that the New York Road Runners Club, the race's sponsor, had supported his Olympic training efforts.
Keflezighi ended up duplicating his Olympic surprise, finishing second behind South African Hendrik Ramaala and notching a personal-best time of 2 hours, 9 minutes, and 53 seconds. He looked toward an eventual career as a motivational speaker, but what impressed many observers of the running scene was that he hadn't yet hit his peak as a distance runner. "I think he's going to be incredible in the next few years," Deena Kastor told the Marathon & Beyond site. "Each training period he goes through, he gets faster and stronger and looks more effortless." An Olympic gold medal seemed within reach of the former cattle hand from war-torn Eritrea.
Daily News (New York), October 31, 2002, p. 81.
Denver Post, August 30, 2004, p. D1.
New York Times, April 6, 2003, section 8, p. 10; March 28, 2004, section 8, p. 10; July 11, 2004, section 8, p. 7; November 8, 2004.
Palm Beach Post, November 8, 2004.
Runners World, August 2004.
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 5, 2001, p. D7; March 22, 2002, p. D2; November 2, 2002, p. D3; January 27, 2003, p. C1; February 6, 2004, p. D2; September 9, 2004, p. D10; November 5, 2004, p. D2; November 8, 2004, p. E1.
USA Today, May 9, 2001, p. C2.
"Rejoice. It's a Beautiful Day," Marathon & Beyond, www.marathonandbeyond.com/choices/meb.html (November 22, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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