- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 22, 2005

Meb Keflezighi certainly is a man of two nations.

Adopted by America on July2, 1998, Keflezighi is still a son in the eyes of the people of the small east African country of Eritrea. In fact, he is their national hero.

Keflezighi gained cult status by doing something at the Athens Olympics last summer that an American had not done since 1976 — medal in the Olympic marathon. For that matter, an Eritrean had never medaled.

Moments after the race, the silver medalist was hoisting the flags of his nations — the red, white and blue of the United States and the red, green and light blue of his native Eritrea. In a matter of a couple of brutal hours in the sweltering heat and humidity of Athens, Keflezighi came to symbolize hope for a nation of 4.5million people who struggle every day with war and strife.

He also rejuvenated the hopes of American marathoners.

Last Thursday, Keflezighi was honored by the very people in America who are trying to make a difference in Eritrea. A dinner at the Capital Hilton was a first-class tribute to Keflezighi’s talent and determination, and to the sacrifice and perseverance of his parents.

“It was beyond my expectation,” said Keflezighi, 30, after the dinner. “I cannot put it in words. It was very touching.”

The event was organized by the Eritrean Development Foundation, a nonprofit humanitarian organization working to promote economic, social and cultural development in Eritrea, including HIV/AIDS awareness and education.

Nearly $200,000 was raised. The program included speeches from Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson and Girma Asmerom, Eritrea’s ambassador to the United States.

Keflezighi’s struggle to gain world-class status in the marathon pales in comparison to the daily struggles back home in war-torn Eritrea. To seek a better life for his family and fearing for his safety, his father, Russom, left his pregnant wife, Awetash, and five children in Eritrea in 1981. He walked 150 miles to the border of neighboring Sudan then worked his way to Milan, Italy.

After five years of custodial work, he had saved enough money to reunite the family in Italy. On Oct.21, 1987, Russom again made a bold move. He relocated the family to the United States, more specifically San Diego, for better educational opportunities.

Meb Keflezighi, who was 12 and hardly spoke a word of English when he arrived in San Diego, went on to become a star student and athlete at UCLA with a full scholarship. Shortly after graduation in 1998, he became a U.S. citizen.

While it was no surprise that he qualified for the 2004 Olympic marathon (he ran the 10,000 meters at the 2000 Sydney Olympics), finishing second was quite an accomplishment considering there were 38 other athletes with faster personal bests.

Just 70 days later, he was runner-up at the New York City Marathon in a field of nearly a dozen elites with faster seed times. That was his fourth major marathon in 13 months, just two years after he debuted at the distance.

Today he is back in Central Park, where his marathon odyssey began. But this time, he is beginning his season with the Healthy Kidney 10K. He said he has fully recovered from Achilles’ tendinitis brought on by a freak accident.

“I was on a 45-minute run about four to five minutes from the house, and I was chased by a dog and I ran backwards,” said the muscular 127-pounder. “That hurt my [left] Achilles’. I tried acupuncture, massage, chiropractic to heal it.”

Keflezighi does not expect huge results today. He’s focused on the future: a fall marathon in either Chicago or New York City. And, of course, the Beijing Olympic marathon in 2008.

“I still have potential to run fast,” he said. “I got a medal but I am planning to run in 2008. I said before that I wanted a medal in 2004 and I wasn’t picky. … Many people are saying, ‘Are you going to go for the gold?’ But first you have to make the team. I’ve been there before so I just need to stick to the basics and go for a medal. And I like it that I run for both nations.”

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