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 learn 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."