Tuesday, April 22, 2014

EXCLUSIVE: Boston Marathon Winner's Friends, Family Reveal the Real Meb Keflezighi

Meb Keflezighi celebrates after Boston Marathon win - Gretchen Ertl/Reuters
Maybe now, people will finally understand just how much Meb Keflezighi loves this country. Keflezighi (left), 38, who on Monday outran more than 32,000 competitors to become the first American man to win the Boston Marathon in 31 years, fled his native Eritrea with his family, including ten siblings, when he was 12. After living in Italy for about 14 months, the family came to the United States and settled in San Diego, where Keflezighi attended grade school, middle school and high school and learned the art of distance running. 

A hard worker in the classroom and on the track, his friends and family say, Keflezighi kept improving and by his senior year at San Diego High School he was a state champion. He went on to UCLA, where he won four individual national championships in distance running events. In 2004, he won a silver medal in the Athens Olympics marathon, becoming the first American to win a medal in an Olympic marathon since Frank Shorter won silver in 1976. And in 2009, Meb made history by becoming the first American man to win the New York Marathon in 27 years. 

But after his enormous win in New York, Meb was criticized by some for not being a true American. CNBC's sports business reporter Darren Rovell ignorantly said Keflezighi was "technically American by virtue of becoming a citizen in 1998, but the fact that he's not American-born takes away from the magnitude of the achievement the headline implies...The positive sign was that some American-born runners did extremely well in yesterday's men's race. If any of them stand on the top step of the podium in Central Park one day, that's when I'll break out my red, white and blue."
After deciding to do his job as a journalist and learning more about Meb's real story, Rovell apologized. "It turns out, Keflezighi moved to the United States in time to develop at every level in America," Rovell said. "So Meb is in fact an American trained athlete and an American citizen and he should be celebrated as the American winner of the NYC Marathon. That makes a difference and makes him different from the 'ringer' I accused him of being. Meb didn't deserve that comparison and I apologize for that."

Some people would have been hurt by such low blows. But Keflezihi's brother, Hawi Keflezighi, who is also Meb's longtime agent, said in an interview with The Reno Dispatch that it just isn't in Meb's nature to become angry or bitter. 

"It was really unfortunate what some people said after the New York win about my brother and our family not really being Americans," Hawi said. "But people were just not educated, they did not know my brother's story. They did not know my family's history and how much we love this country. They did not know that Meb is such a proud American. Some of them issued an apology us once they knew the real story."

The real story is that Keflezighi clearly loves America with a rare passion. He is the embodiment of the American dream. It meant more to him to win in Boston than any other race, said his brother Hawi, because of the tragic bombing last year. He simply wanted to win for his fellow Americans.

When Meb crossed the finish line yesterday, the cheering crowd roared when they saw that he had the names of last year's bombing victims written in black marker on the corners of his race bib. After the race, Keflezighi draped himself in the America flag and told reporters, "I'm blessed to be an American and God bless America and God bless Boston for this special day."

The oldest Boston Marathon winner since 1931, Keflezighi, who just missed a medal in the 2012 Olympic marathon, finishing fourth, enjoys a reputation back in his hometown San Diego that seems almost too good to be true. Friends and family interviewed for this story describe him as an abundantly generous, soft-spoken family man who loves his wife and three kids, works really hard, doesn't boast, and, most of all, is passionately patriotic. 

"Meb is the most humble person that I have ever come across," said Paul Greer, a professor and coach at San Diego City College who first met Keflezighi when he was a sophomore in high school and Greer was already a respected track coach. 

"Im actively involved in track and field and competed myself on a high level," Greer said. "People who are as talented and accomplished as Meb can be brash, and more egotistical. But Meb is the opposite. He is quiet but at the same time he says the right things at the right times. His greatest asset is his humility. For all his success in the Olympics and in New York and now Boston, and the NCAA titles, it could be different."

Greer called Keflezighi a "role model, not just for runners but anyone. Some of our top athletic stars could learn a little bit from Meb. Kids are starving to look up to someone who works hard and does the right things. He is talented, of course, you don't win the New York and Boston Marathons and a silver medal in the Olympics if you aren't talented. But it took a lot more than talent, it took a lot of hard work. I saw that in him from the time he was a kid."

Kate Garcia, president of the San Diego Track Club, the city's largest organization for runners, has known Meb for many years and called him "the most generous human being I've ever met."

In 2012, Garcia said, the San Diego Track Club hosted the Olympic trials for the race walking event. "It's a 50 kilometer race, and it took the winner over three hours to finish," she said. "Meb came out to cheer on the race walkers. He's also spoken at our club. We train runners for the for San Diego Rock & Roll Marathon. He has spoken at the annual dinner before the marathon, and he's a fabulous speaker. He even spoke after he won in New York. I'm sure there were lots of demands on his time then. He has always been there for us."

Garcia added that Meb never complains even though he has achieved so much and, before now, not gotten that much national attention. 

"He works so hard, and because of that he is still running sub-five minute miles at age 38," she said. "He got fourth in Olympics marathon in 2012, and no one even considered him a contender. Same thing with Boston this week, no one was really following him. He is so humble, he doesn't brag and doesn't have a lot of people following his training. The thing is, United States track and field is not as important as it is in Africa and Europe. But he never complains. He loves the sport."

Hawi Keflezighi, who also represents other world-class runners such as Leo Manzano, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 1,500, said he was with Meb in Boston last year and they watched the race together (Meb was injured). He and Meb made their way to the finish line area to cheer on the finishers and left just minutes before the bombing. 

Hawi said that even before the tragic Boston bombing last year, Boston was special to Keflezighi. In a 2009 interview with U-T San Diego, Meb was asked what his new year's resolution was. He said it was to "win the Boston Marathon."

Meb's triumph in Boston is not only the highlight of an illustrious career, Hawi said, it is one of the defining moments of his life.

"This is the most meaningful win of my brother's career, by far," Hawi said. "After what happened in Boston last year, Meb really wanted to win this race and pay tribute and honor all the people that were impacted by last year's tragedy. He felt the best way to do that was to win. That was his drive, that was his extra level of motivation. To win for Boston."


Monday, March 24, 2014

Critics of Obama's Handling of Ukraine Crisis are Disingenuous and Hypocritical

President Obama and Russian President Putin
I've certainly not agreed with everything President Obama has done over the past five years in terms of his foreign policy. But the relentless and callow criticism he's getting from his political enemies for allegedly being weak in his handling of the crisis in Russia and Ukraine is not only unfair and unfounded, it is utterly political and laughably disingenuous. And it shows the selective memory of so many of his critics. 

Obama, who kicks off a two-day summit on nuclear security today at The Hague in the Netherlands, where he'll reportedly meet later in the day with other leaders of the G7 nations, is doing exactly what any responsible, measured U.S. President would do regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin's rogue actions. Nothing more, nothing less. 

The widespread and transparent political shots being fired at the President from many of his Republican adversaries begs the obvious question: Where were these folks in 2008, when Russian forces invaded the former Soviet state of Georgia? Yes, invaded. At the time, President George W. Bush responded with virtually the same words and actions as Obama is giving us now, and no one on the right called Bush weak. 

We were still shooting and bombing the crap out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that didn't deter Russia from moving in to Georgia. Get my drift? As Russian tanks began rolling into Georgia in the summer of 2008, Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino, now a Fox host and reliable Obama basher, said this: "We call for an immediate ceasefire. We urge all parties, Georgians, south Ossetians, Russians to deescalate the tensions and to avoid conflict. We are working on mediation efforts and to secure a ceasefire, and we are urging the parties to restart their dialogue." 

I'm sure Dana's comments had them Russkies shaking in their boots, eh? Some real fightin' words from the Bush camp. Can you imagine if Obama presser Jay Carney said this very same thing now about the Ukraine crisis? The right would eat him alive. 

And now, most regrettably and inappropriately, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is weighing in. Say it ain't so, Mitt. He accused Obama of being naive about Putin’s world views and “lacking the judgment” and foresight to have stopped the Russian president from taking over Ukraine’s Crimea region.

"There's no question but that the president's naiveté with regards to Russia, and his faulty judgment about Russia's intentions and objectives, has led to a number of foreign policy challenges that we face," said the former Massachusetts governor and failed presidential candidate on CBS’ Face the Nation.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, quickly and appropriately responded to Romney’s suggestion that Putin would have been discouraged had the United States first shown military force somewhere else in the world.

“I disagree, and so does history,” Durbin told CBS. “In the midst of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Putin invaded the Republic of Georgia. … He is a bully, and we've got to call him for what he is.”

Durbin also said the idea that sanctions are going to stop a former colonel in the KGB is naive at best. “What the President has done is first, try to negotiate, try to stop the intrigue and the referendum in Crimea. It didn't work,” said Durbin, who praised the diplomatic efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Obama's trip this week was previously planned, but Russia, who was not invited, will now be the hot topic. "We're united in imposing a cost on Russia for its actions so far," Obama said after meeting with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. 

Sounds reasonable and reassuring. But obviously not to the knee-jerk anti-Obama crowd. There's obviously nothing Obama could say or do that would change the mind of his detractors. Why? Because many of them don't really care a lick about the people of Ukraine. They just see this as a golden opportunity in a congressional election year to appeal to the base and blast the White House.

Former Vice President and chicken hawk Dick Cheney, who never met a war he didn't like but who avoided the military draft in the 1960s five times with deferments, recently said there's "no question" that Putin thinks Obama is weak. Cheney, who should just keep his mouth shut when asked about U.S. involvement in a foreign country, also said on Face the Nation recently, “No military. He [Obama] seems to operate that way most of the time. There are military options that don’t involve putting troops on the ground in Crimea." 

Well, no, not really. Pretty much none of that is accurate. But it makes for a great sound byte, doesn't it? 

The equally war-loving John Bolton, who was ambassador to the United Nations in W's administration and who gets giddy whenever he mulls the possibility of a potential war between Israel and Iran, said Obama's handling of the Putin situation proves that he is not "interested in American national security affairs." 

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whose foreign policy credibility is less than zero, recently said that Obama "left a vacuum that Putin is filling." Other Obama critics say that the President needs to "man up," "get a backbone," and that he has "lost moral authority" and "lost all credibility abroad." 

It should be noted that none of these folks had a single word to say about the Bush administration six years ago when Russia went into Georgia. Cheney certainly didn't. Yes, he obligatorily condemned Russia's invasion, but never connected it with any sort of weakness on Bush's behalf. 

Conservative writer and Bond villain wanna-be Charles Krauthammer made this curiously wimpy statement back in 2008: "Well, obviously it's beyond our control. The Russians are advancing (in Georgia). There is nothing that will stop them. We are not going to go to war over Georgia."

And then there's Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a man I admire greatly for his service to his country. But he's been predictably rattling his rusty saber all over the place in recent weeks. In 2008, while he was on the Presidential campaign trail, he didn't have a single critical word for Bush over the fact that Russia had just invaded a sovereign country. Instead, he said there should be an end to the “partisan sniping” over the issue and called on the country to unite.

Of course, McCain and the rest of these political animals know that no Republican President would do anything substantively different than Obama is doing right now -- especially any Republican President who got millions in campaign money from big oil companies that have multi-billion dollar business deals with Russia. They also know that none of the Republicans who are slamming Obama for being weak has any effective ideas on how to deal with Putin, other than maybe reviving plans for a NATO missile defense shield in Poland. 

Uh, yeah, that'll work. All the NATO talk and Cold War-era silliness about nukes is just a red herring. Putin knows it is very unlikely that any country will intervene militarily in this regional fight. 

Obama's haters say there's a bigger-picture issue at stake here. They say that it's about "peace through strength," and that Putin has the upper hand and is not afraid of Obama and that broadcasting our intentions to reduce troop numbers will only embolden a guy like Putin. But Putin doesn't need us to embolden him. Whether we broadcast our intentions or not, it makes no difference, Putin doesn't care.

Despite what happened in Syria with Obama's "red line" comment - and thank goodness we DIDN'T send troops there, which McCain and others would have done - Obama is actually much more of a hawk than he promised he would be. Putin knows this, and he's also obviously aware of the 100,000-troop surge in Afghanistan under Obama's watch, as well all the drone killings. Neither phase him. He knows no country will militarily oppose his actions in Ukraine, just as Russia knew six summers ago that no one would oppose its actions in Georgia.

As for the notion that we can't reduce our troop level now and in fact should raise it, that's dangerously false. We will still have more than enough troops to invade another country if we choose. Our military budget is the same as the next 10 countries in the world combined. It's obscene, it is unnecessarily high. More of this money should be spent on our veterans who've already fought in wars.

Is Putin dangerous? Probably. Is he an arrogant buffoon who likes to roam around shirtless and steal Super Bowl rings? Definitely. But this is not our war. I am not sure how we stop this but clearly we have to join with most of the other nations around the world and strangle Putin economically and by other means. But we should not and can not get involved militarily. 

Interestingly, the same Republicans who are attacking Obama right now agree that there are no military options. Even McCain admits there are no military options. But he and others continue to bark at the moon.

This is a major international incident, and good Americans are standing by the President. As I said, the Republicans in Congress who are moaning the loudest over Obama's alleged weakness could care less about the people of Ukraine. It's all just more political theater.

A slice of truth: Obama has killed far more of our real enemies - radical Muslim terrorists - than Bush ever did. He is fighting the right enemies, the real threats to America, and he got us out of Iraq, where we should not have been in the first place. And he is about to get us the hell out of Afghanistan. 

Make no mistake: we will always have a robust number of trained troops. Reducing our fighting force won't embolden Putin or anyone. But it will help our economy and our country. We will still be the strongest, most powerful military in the world by a long shot. This is all just political manure from some of the great chicken hawks of our time. And it stinks.