Chances are you paid scant attention on Sunday when Meb Keflezighi won the New York Marathon. The announcers made a big deal of how it was the first American to win the race since Ronald’s Reagan’s first term in office, but my meter shows little more than “ho-hum.”
We need to take another look at that, particularly that last quarter-mile in the 26.2-mile run when he started slapping his chest flying towards the finish tape, drawing attention to the “U.S.A.” on his singlet instead of the tears streaming down his face as he stretched with all his might towards the crown of laurels.
Keflezighi (pronounced “Kef-lez-ghee”) was born in the African country of Eritrea, a tiny nation that is Ethiopia’s northern neighbor. As a small boy, the two countries were involved in a brutal war of independence, and Meb learned to run when Ethiopian soldiers would pounce on his village, grabbing any child over 10 to help them shoot and kill the others.
If they caught a child who refused to go, they would first dismember the screaming child in front of his family with machetes before finally killing the small boy on the spot. While this may have well have been a motivating recruitment tactic, Meb’s family would instead run and hide time and time again during his terrifying childhood.
Meb didn’t even see a car until he was 10. He thought it was “a death machine.” He took off like a scalded dog and, some years later he laughingly told an interviewer, “That was one race I did not win!” He also remembers seeing TV for the first time and wondering how on earth they found such small actors to fit in the little box.
His daddy, Russom, was a freedom fighter for Eritrea and finally, at the urging of his wife before he too might lose his life, Meb’s daddy fled the country, going to Milan, Italy, and sending money home. Russom finally sent for his family and moving was easy – they had no belongings.
From Milan they found refugee status in San Diego where eight people lived in a three-room apartment; not three bedrooms – three rooms. It was there Russom did anything and everything to get his children in school. At first Meb played soccer, but he was drawn to running in junior high school.
Everybody talks about the fact he won state titles for San Diego High School in cross country, the 1600 meters, and the 3200 meters, but few note he also had a 3.95 GPA overall.
Immensely popular and outgoing, his marvelous work ethic had Harvard and Stanford and every other university drooling, but he went to UCLA. Why?
Let me help you with that. UCLA’s coach at the time was Bob Larsen. Bob grew up on a Minnesota farm that had no running water and no electricity. Bob saw a work ethic he could coach. Meb saw a man who … well, who “knew.”
En route to his degree, Mel won four NCAA championships. Was it easy? I think not. Was it hard for Bob Larsen to gently blow the ember so similar to the fire in the village where Meb once ran in terror from enemy soldiers? I believe that to be true.
Once Keflezighi earned his diploma, it was nothing compared to the naturalization ceremony they held where Meb put his hand on his heart and became a U.S. citizen. Don’t you ever think, not for a second, the “American dream” is a thing of the past. Meb Keflezighi will fight you over it and, brother, if you run he can and will catch you.
In the 2004 Olympics, Mel was second, earning the silver for the United States behind Italy’s Stefano Baldini. But it hasn’t exactly been bright sunrises and bowls of fluffy ice cream since. Two years ago, when the New York Marathon was also the trials for Bejing, Keflezighi suffered what was later determined to be a stress fracture in his right hip. He literally hobbled to the finish line, coming in eighth.
But, far worse, one of his closest friends, training partner Ryan Shay who Mel had run “thousands of miles” beside, had a heart attack in the race, collapsed and died. You understand the tears that ran down his face yesterday? It wasn’t lost on knowing eyes in Sunday’s race when, at the exact point Ryan went down, Meb crossed himself and moments later tried vainly to wipe the tears from his eyes in order to again focus on the goal before him.
Of all the spectacular athletes who ran on Sunday, it was also not lost on those knowing eyes that Keflezighi, the guy with a name nobody can pronounce, was the only “world class” runner in the field to wear a USA singlet. Most of the crowd didn’t know of his two-year ordeal to recover from the hip thing, how each and every day he stretches and does his sit-ups and runs for miles at Mammoth Lake with only a stop-watch in his hand now that Ryan Shay is gone.
Oh, yes, the New York race on Sunday was far more than the blistering time of 2:09.15. It was about victory. It was about triumph. But, more than anything, it was living and vivid proof this thing we often call too callously “the American dream” has hardly dimmed but is as alive today as when other immigrants filed through Ellis Island many years ago.
"Today was a huge day," he said with those tear-stains hidden behind his grin. "You visualize, you visualize, but when reality hits, it hits home, and it's pretty sweet."
You like that? Then how about this: "Definitely today wearing that USA jersey got the crowd going," he said. "Definitely wore it with big honor and pride."
Yeah, now you understand. But let’s do one more. "To get the second chance — you know, unfortunately Ryan is not here," the man whose name you cannot say added. "But injuries are something that you recover from. A lot of things you can recover from in life."
It is the American dream. It still lives. And even today you can do anything you want to do.
So, one more time, please say “Kef-lez-ghee” because, yes, it is an American name. You better believe it is.