Mebrahtom Keflezighi’s life has changed forever since crossing the finish line in second place in the Athens Olympic Marathon under a full moon on a hot, humid night in August.
Keflezighi, 29, ended an American drought of nearly three decades to become the first USA medallist since Frank Shorter, the 1972 champion, won the silver in 1976 while defending his title.
The amicable, Eritrean-born Keflezighi has simply become known as “Meb” in the American distance running community and has drawn comparisons with legendary U.S. marathoners such as Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar and Craig Virgin.
“I try not to compare myself with them,” the soft-spoken Keflezighi said. “I can’t be the person and athlete that somebody wants to be. I can’t control how fast others run. All I can control is what I do individually as Meb and be the best I can possibly be.’’
Marathon rather than 10,000m in Athens
Keflezighi qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in both the Marathon and the 10,000m, an event in which he set the American record of 27:13.98 in 2001.
He chose the longer distance despite not winning the event at the U.S. Trials and having run only three times in his career before Athens. Despite his 10,000m credentials, Keflezighi believed his chances to medal in the marathon were better and the opportunity to run in the historic Panathenaiko Stadium also weighed in his decision.
In fact, Keflezighi’s confidence was so great that he told friends at an Olympic send-off party three weeks before Athens that he was going to win a medal. The videotape of the statement is among Keflezighi’s treasured mementos along with his medal.
“Everybody laughed but I felt comfortable in my training and went for the medal,” Keflezighi said. “It’s a shock to some people but for the people who know me, it was only a matter of time where I could be a great marathoner.’’
Keflezighi followed his Athens performance with a career-best 2:09.52 to finish second on a challenging course in the New York City Marathon in November. It was the highest finish by a U.S. runner in the race since 1993.
Two years earlier in the Big Apple in 2002, Keflezighi finished ninth in his marathon debut in 2:12:35. He ran a then personal-best 2:10:03 at the Chicago Marathon in 2003.
“There are other places that have faster courses than New York,” Keflezighi said. “I went there for the competition. Scientists have said it’s impossible to run two marathons in 70 days. I wasn’t trying prove anything to anybody but only to try to do the best with my God-given talent. I was two years older, wiser and more experienced with confidence and a silver medal.’’
Keflezighi will run the London Marathon in the spring but has not yet decided whether he will focus on the marathon or 10,000m for the Helsinki World Championships.
Inspiration for the next generation
Keflezighi has been on a training break in December before gearing up for the 2005 season. Earlier this month, Keflezighi served as a mentor at the Nike Team National high school cross country championships in Portland, Ore. answering questions during an elite athlete forum.
The following week, Keflezighi coached the West team in the Foot Locker National championships in his hometown of San Diego.
Keflezighi said he gladly volunteers his services and feels an obligation to serve as a role model for America’s next generation of distance runners. He often carries his Olympic medal in his back pocket for safe-keeping for traveling but is reluctant to bring it out during public appearances.
It’s a humbleness that he learned from his high school coach Ed Ramos and marathoner Ron Tabb, who helped in his development as a fledging teenager.
“It’s a big honour and a lot of notoriety to be an Olympic medallist,” Keflezighi said. “When I was in high school, I was lucky to have people to look up to for inspiration. I just try to be the best human being that I can be.’’
Long term coaching partnership
Keflezighi has spent the last 10 years training with his college coach Bob Larsen, a partnership that produced four NCAA individual titles at UCLA. He lived for two years after college at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, where he gained daily inspiration for his Olympic pursuit.
He now splits training time between San Diego and high altitude of Mammoth Lakes, California.,
“To make it to the podium, you can’t take anything for granted,” Keflezighi said. “I’ve worked hard for the last 10 years but I also had the love of my parents, siblings and special people take an interest in me and it’s paying dividends.’’
From Eritrea to the USA
Keflezighi, one of 11 children, was born in Eritrea, an African nation ravaged by War, until age 10.
His village of Asmara had no running water no electricity. He still has terrifying memories of his brothers hiding in bushes so that they wouldn’t be forced to join the military to fight against Ethiopia.
The family fled the country by walking day and night on a 600-mile journey to neighbouring Sudan, and Keflezighi’s father worked for three years in menial jobs to save enough money to move to the U.S.
The family settled in the Southern California city of San Diego. It was there that Keflezighi gained an interest in running two months after moving to the U.S. after watching Bob Kennedy win the 1987 national high school cross country title at nearby Balboa Park where the Keflizighi played soccer on the weekends.
In 1998, Keflezighi became a U.S. citizen and the opportunity to represent the country internationally. He returned to Eritrea for the first time in 2002 where he was reunited with his grandfather and greeted by crowds in the streets as a national hero.
“I am a U.S. product,” Keflezighi said. “People saw me develop in high school and college to what I am today. But I didn’t come to this country for running. I came here for the opportunities. I’ve had to overcome obstacles with faith growing up. The discomfort of a marathon or any athletic event cannot compare with the choices of life of death in Eritrea.’’
Kirby Lee for the IAAF