News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

November 21, 2010

MARK BENNETT: New York City Marathon winner and Olympic silver medalist in town for Cross Country Championships

TERRE HAUTE — Often, he runs alone, in a physical sense.

Few training partners could keep up with Meb Keflezighi. In fact, only a few living humans are capable of matching him stride for stride. But this 5-foot, 5-inch-tall guy with the funny sounding name (pronounced ka-FLEZ-ghee) didn’t become America’s best distance runner without help.

“You cannot make it by yourself,” Keflezighi said by cellphone Thursday afternoon.

He’d just conveyed that message, and more advice, to elementary school students in Austin, Texas. From there, Keflezighi flew to Boston to sign copies of his new book, “Run to Overcome: The Inspiring Story of an American Champion’s Long-Distance Quest to Achieve a Big Dream.” This week, he’ll visit Terre Haute to promote his book today and watch the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships at the LaVern Gibson Championship Course on Monday.

All kinds of people pass through Terre Haute. Few arrive with more inspiring stories than this softspoken, 35-year-old husband and father.

As a boy, Keflezighi and his family fled war-torn Eritrea — a small region seeking independence from Ethiopia — to Italy and then the United States. Meb showed up in middle school as a sixth-grader, unable to speak English. “They thought I was potentially stupid, or a mute,” Keflezighi said. His youth, though, was unlike anything the other kids experienced.

He’d witnessed the atrocities of war. He saw an automobile and a television for the first time at age 10.

“The first time I saw a car, I ran from it,” Keflezighi recalled. “The first time I saw a TV, I went behind it to look for the people.”

Life in the United States wasn’t simple, either. Keflezighi’s parents worked hard to raise 11 children (their family grew here) and send those children through college. Meb’s path to a UCLA degree sprouted in a seventh-grade gym class in San Diego. The students ran a mile and were timed. Keflezighi had never done that before. Yet, he finished his debut mile in 5 minutes and 20 seconds — a minute faster than the rest of the class.

Keflezighi won a pair of state championships as a high-schooler. UCLA Coach Bob Larsen gave him a scholarship to UCLA, and Keflezighi responded by winning four NCAA cross country championships as a Bruin. In 2004, Keflezighi won the silver medal in the marathon at the Summer Olympics at Athens, Greece. Last year, he won the New York City Marathon, coming back from a potentially career-ending broken pelvis.

Those last two accomplishments — the silver medal at Athens, and the New York City Marathon title — come with a distinction perhaps more important to Keflezighi than his placement in those historic races. In Greece, he became the first American to win an Olympic marathon medal since Frank Shorter took gold in 1972. In the Big Apple, Keflezighi became the first American to win the New York City Marathon since Alberto Salazar in 1982.

The first American …

He received that precious label on July 2, 1998, when he became a U.S. citizen. Keflezighi has committed that date to memory. “Independence. It was my Fourth of July,” he said. He also remembers Oct. 25, 1987, the day his family came to the United States.

When Keflezighi describes this country as “the land of opportunity,” he’s not simply repeating a cliché. He relishes his opportunity.

“I take pride in the United States,” Keflezighi said.

To other immigrants, he advises them to embrace their pride and opportunity wisely. “Assimilate to the culture, but don’t forget where you came from,” Keflezighi said.

And, “surround yourself with good people.”

Family, friends, teachers and coaches all played roles in Keflezighi’s path to citizenship, as did his Christian faith. Those elementary-schoolers listening to Keflezighi speak on Thursday heard him emphasize the importance of making good choices in friendships and activities.

“There are good things about the United States, and there are bad things about the United States,” he said. “Stick to people who are doing the right things.”

Keflezighi linked up with one of the wisest Americans ever, John Wooden. During Keflezighi’s UCLA days, he sought out a chance to meet the legendary former Bruins basketball coach. He visited Wooden’s modest home, and was amazed by the volume of books the coach kept. “It was a library,” Keflezighi recalled.

Wooden, who died this year, “had that thirst for knowledge,” Keflezighi said. “He was a dear and special man.”

That’s why Keflezighi often quotes Wooden. In the days before this year’s New York City Marathon, Keflezighi told the New York Times, “John Wooden says it’s not what you do in the two hours of practice, but how you take care of yourself the next 24 hours.”

If the 500-plus collegiate runners, their coaches, parents and fans flowing into Terre Haute today and Monday need some guidance, American Meb Keflezighi has a pretty good sense of direction.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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