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Family's Endurance produces top U.S. Marathoner

- Jere Longman

(Sunday, October 31, 2004)

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[ Keflezighi, who is 29, was not expected to win a medal in Athens, not by anyone outside of his family and friends and training group, anyway. ]

The boy grew up without electricity or running water. He was a runner only in the sense that he and his family became refugees from one of Africa's longest wars of the 20th century, eventually moving to the United States. He had never heard of the Olympics, so he could not have dreamed of winning a silver medal in the marathon, as he did in Athens. At age 10, Meb Keflezighi (pronounced ka-FLEZ-gee) moved to Italy from war-torn Eritrea in East Africa. For half his life he had not seen his father. Russom Keflezighi had supported Eritrean rebels in their protracted and bloody attempt to win independence from Ethiopia. Fearing for his safety, Russom walked 150 miles across Eritrea to the border of neighboring Sudan, then worked his way to Milan.

After five years of custodial work, he sent for his family. It was in Italy that young Meb Keflezighi first encountered the astonishment of television, which would one day transmit his Olympic success to the world. "How could that guy fit in there?" he recalled asking himself, wondering how a human form could be compressed into such a magical box. Keflezighi recounted the story here recently over lunch, facing a bank of televisions in a restaurant after a crisp morning run amid glassy lakes and towering pines in the High Sierra. On Nov. 7, only 70 days after his Olympic performance, he hopes to become the first American since 1982 to win the New York City Marathon.

The trip to Italy began a journey that would deposit the Keflezighi family in San Diego in 1987 and would become a remarkable immigrant story of faith, risk, expectation and perseverance, words that string together like charms in a bracelet of family success. The Keflezighis arrived in the United States speaking no English, teased for their pay-less clothing, but determined to triumph at what once seemed unimaginable opportunity.

The father cleaned floors in various banks and drove a taxi so his children could concentrate on their education instead of work. Fitsum, the eldest son, became an electrical engineer. Aklilu, the second son, got his M.B.A. Meb, the third son, received a degree in business communications from U.C.L.A. and won four national collegiate running titles. Bahghi, a younger sister, is in medical school. Merhawi, a younger brother, is in law school. Bemnet, yet another brother, is studying economics. Four younger siblings remain at home, all planning on college, all given names that translate to "peace" and "hope" and "best" and "astonished them" in anticipation and celebration of Eritrea's independence, gained in 1993 after three decades of struggle. "It's the most extraordinary family I've ever met," said Dr. Steven Van Camp, a San Diego cardiologist who has been a mentor to Meb.

Keflezighi, who is 29, was not expected to win a medal in Athens, not by anyone outside of his family and friends and training group, anyway. Thirty-eight runners, a third of the marathon field, had previously run 26.2 miles in a faster time than his personal best of 2 hours 10 minutes 3 seconds. But Keflezighi trained exquisitely for the hills and heat of Athens, and only Stefano Baldini of Italy, the gold medalist, could match his patience and resolve on the undulating Olympic course.

Baldini won by 34 seconds in 2:10:55, but Keflezighi appeared fresher at the finish, as if he could have kept on running into the darkness of a Sunday evening. His father wept back in California. Once again, many had counted out the Keflezighis, but they had not counted out themselves. Over lunch here, Meb opened his day planner to Aug. 29, the date of the Athens race, and read the entry: "Olympic marathon goal top three."

Fitsum Keflezighi, speaking by telephone from San Jose, Calif., said of his brother's Olympic medal: "That was the icing on the cake; it highlighted our family achievement. The ultimate thing my parents said was, 'Whatever you put your mind to, work hard and it is going to pay off.' " A Risky New Beginning.

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