© Copyright
General News

Khannouchi eager for first marathon as an American

Nancy Armour (AP)

20 October 2000 - Khalid Khannouchi has dreamed of winning a marathon as an American citizen for so long that it's a vivid picture in his mind, with emotions so intense he can't even begin to describe them.

The Moroccan-born runner, who became a U.S. citizen in May, won a half-marathon in September, but it wasn't the same thing. The marathon is HIS race; it's the distance he holds the world best performance in and the race with which everyone associates him.

So when he runs the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, he won't be just defending his title. He'll finally be running for his country.

"The first marathon is going to be special,'' he said Thursday.

"It just makes me feel good. But also, it's a lot of pressure because the crowd really cheers me on. They want to see an American crossing the finish line first.

"I promise, I'll try my best.''

Khannouchi moved to the United States in 1993. He settled in New York and, three years later, married Sandra Inoa, a runner he met during a race and a naturalised U.S. citizen.

He felt so welcomed by Americans that he applied for citizenship, hoping to run for the United States in the Sydney Olympics.

"My second dream is to give something back to my country,'' said Khannouchi, 28.

But his request had been handled by a caseworker from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service who was later charged with bribery. The examiner's cases were shelved – including Khannouchi's, even though his wasn't among those involved in the illegal activity.

Khannouchi asked for expedited citizenship, but his request was denied in June 1999. Finally, last spring, he was granted citizenship under a law that allows spouses of U.S. citizens working abroad for an American company to become citizens.

"I was very happy. You don't know how happy I was," Khannouchi said, smiling. "It was a great ceremony that I will remember.''

Even though he's finally a citizen, Khannouchi's dream of representing the United States at the Olympics is still just that.

Uncertain whether his citizenship request would be granted, Khannouchi agreed to run in the London Marathon last April. He twisted his ankle while training for the race but continued running, aggravating the injury and hurting his right hamstring.

He finished third in London, but his injuries were so bad his trainer told him he couldn't run for 6-8 weeks or he'd risk permanent damage. But resting that long meant he'd miss the U.S. trials for the Olympic marathon.

Torn, Khannouchi finally decided to skip the trials.

"I think I made the right choice,'' he said. "If I had gone to the trials, I wouldn't have made it to the Olympics because (the Moroccan) federation wouldn't have allowed me. It was a big factor.''

Under International Olympic Committee rules, an athlete must wait three years before representing his new country. That period can only be waived with the agreement of the previous national Olympic committee, the international federation (IAAF) and the IOC executive board.

Morocco had indicated it wouldn't allow Khannouchi to run for the United States.

"In the future, for the major championships, it's not going to be a problem,'' Khannouchi said. "My mind is clear and I want to go for that.''

Still, that didn't make it any easier to miss Sydney. Khannouchi said he couldn't even watch the men's marathon, won by Gezahgne Abera of Ethiopia.

Khannouchi is the obvious favourite Sunday. He's run Chicago three times and won it twice, setting the world best of 2 hours, 5 minutes and 42 seconds last year.

Even if he doesn't win Sunday, odds are Khannouchi will set an American record. The current U.S. mark for the marathon is 2:09:32, set last year in Chicago by David Morris.