RIO DE JANEIRO — After Meb Keflezighicq qualified for his fourth US Olympic team at the men’s marathon trials, he wiped back tears. But it wasn’t because the 41-year-oldcq would return to the Olympic Games for one final race on Sunday morning. It wasn’t because the moment made him reflect on how running turned a kid from war-torn Eriteria Eritrea into one of the most accomplished US marathoners of all time. It wasn’t because, as he said repeatedly, he felt “so blessed.”
Though all of that was true and truly appreciated.
It was hearing tributes from his fellow US Olympic marathon teammates that left Keflezighi emotional. Because not only is Keflezighi one of the all-time great US marathoners, winner of a silver medal in the marathon at the 2004 Athens Olympics, winner of the 2009 New York City Marathon and winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon, cqhe is one of the sport’s all-time good guys.
“He truly is a wonderful person,” said US Olympic trials winner Amy Cragg.cq “He believed in me and saw something in me way before anyone should have.”
Jared Ward, cqhis US Olympic marathon teammate, added: “Meb is nice to everyone. He exemplifies such a positive personality. If I was guessing, I’d say that has given him a lot of balance in his life.”
And the most effusive praise came from Desi Linden,cq who called Keflezighi “a hero.”
"Meb is the epitome of a hero," said Linden. "He's Mr. Consistency. He's put your head down and go grind it out. He's a very loyal, good guy. He's what we strive to be. He's an amazing model for us to look up to and we're super lucky to have him. There's great athletes, there's incredible competitors and Meb is a hero."
It may sound a little over the top, but to know Keflezighi, even better to be one of his training partners or teammates, is to admire him. He genuinely, passionately cares about marathon running and doing it right and sharing his love of the sport with others.
Keflezighi is the training partner who will come over and talk to you after a tough day and take time to offer encouragement. Cragg and others will tell you that. He is the elite runner who will put a smile on your face after a disappointing Boston Marathon, share his end-of-the-race moment by grabbing your hand and raising it high as you cross the finish together. Boston-based elite racer Hilary Dionnecq will tell you that. He is the competitor with a marathon personal best of 2:08:37 who cheers on and high-fives racers much farther back. Runners and spectators from any number of events around the country will tell you that.
Keflezighi should hear how much his fellow competitors and US Olympians respect and admire him, especially since it's likely the men's marathon Sunday morning will conclude his Olympic career. The tributes were a fitting reward after a career with impressive longevity and a life filled with struggles big and small, inside and outside of sports.
On the personal side, there was leaving his home country where Keflezighi lived in a village with no electricity and no running water. In 1987, he arrived with his family in the United States (via Italy) as a 12-year-old refugee. On the professional side, after injuries sidelined him, Nike dropped him in 2011. It seemed Nike thought he was finished at 35.
Left briefly unsponsored, Skechers came into the picture and reaped the benefits and all the success to come. That included a win at the 2012 US Olympic Marathon trials and fourth place in the event at the London Games. And, of course, Boston.
In 2014, one year after the marathon bombings, Keflezighi heard fans along the famed route chanting, “U-S-A, U-S-A.” He sensed the desperation for an American win. With equal desperation, Keflezighi wanted to give Boston the American win that the city, maybe the entire country, wanted. He did. And he became the first American man to win the Boston Marathon since 1983.
It seems unlikely Keflezighi will medal against much younger and faster competition in Rio, though it’s wise add to end never underestimate him. With decades of experience and 23 marathons on his résumé, he is the definition of an experienced marathoner and competes with veteran savvy.
Fellow Olympian Galen Ruppcq appears poised to become the next major-marathon-winning US Marathon talent, if he chooses to focus on 26.2 miles in the coming years. In Rio, Rupp is attempting the taxing distance double of the 10,000 meters (he finished fifth in 27:08.92) and the marathon. He’ll go for the marathon win, but who knows how Rupp will fare in only his second career marathon.
Meanwhile, everyone knows that Keflezighi rises to the challenge of major marathons. So, it wouldn't be surprising to see the veteran strategist pick his way through the field. As potentially the first American across the finish line in the Sambódromo, Keflezighi, once again, could hear chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A." And if that happens, once again he could be on the Olympic podium.