My 2014 Sportsman nominee: Meb Keflezighi
This essay is one of more than 20 nominations for SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year. You can see all of this year's nominees here.
It had been a year since the bombings. A year since two explosions tore through storefronts, human flesh and the spirit of the Boston Marathon, leaving the city angry and scarred, and the running community violated. It had been a year in which Boston learned to heal and to fight back, as Boston will, and a year in which runners vowed to return and finish the races they started a year earlier. It was a year unlike any in the history of the most storied footrace in America (and just maybe in the modern history of populist running itself).
And come the morning April 21, 2014, the race would begin in the green in Hopkinton and it would surely be a race for the people, and not for the laurel. Far up front a man from Kenya would win the race and that would be fine. A man from Kenya almost always wins the Boston Marathon. And there is no place outside Kenya itself that respects and embraces the beauty and passion of the Kenyan runner more than Boston. They are cheered for more than 26 miles as if they were the city’s own. And all of that also applies to runners from Ethiopia. Surely the winner would pay tribute in some way to the importance of this race in this year. But it would be, again, a race for those stretched out behind through the spring suburbs to the west of Boston, those that were forced to stop short a year earlier and those running in memory of the wounded and the dead.
Then something remarkable happened, something that defies explanation to this day and softens the anger of the most cynical among us. An American won the race. An American with a bib on which he had written in tiny letters the names of the three killed in the 2013 bombing and the MIT police officer killed later. An American who had for many years not long ago, suffered the indignity of criticism that he wasn’t American enough to represent the U.S.A. on the international athletic stage, when in fact he was everything that America aspires to be.
For this victory, the period -- nay, the exclamation mark -- at the end of Boston’s yearlong expression of recovery and resolves, Meb Keflezighi should be Sports Illustrated’s 2014 Sportsman of the Year.
In the early afternoon hours of that April Monday, the Patriots Day holiday in Boston, word spread across social media like rainwater flowing downhill. Meb is leading Boston! Wait. Meb is leading Boston? No. Can’t be. Understand, Keflezighi has earned the respect of the world running community. He won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games, first place in the 2009 New York City Marathon and a fourth place finish at the London Games. On the biggest stages at the most important times, Meb -- he has long gotten the one-name treatment -- has brought it.
But on a basic level, Keflezighi couldn’t possibly win this Boston Marathon, because he was too old (a month shy of his 39th birthday), too often injured and, frankly, too slow even on his best day. His personal best was 2:09:06, at the 2012 Olympic Trials. There were seven runners in the field with personal bests of 2:05:30 or faster. Olympic marathons are often tactical and slow. Boston, with it’s hills and uncertain weather, can be so too. Or it can be blindingly fast if the wind and the temperature are right, which they were last year.
Seven miles into the race Keflezighi and training partner Josephat Boit moved to the front of a large pack and put just the smallest gap on the favorites. At eight miles, the gap was 10 seconds and at 10 miles, half a minute. At 15 miles, Keflezighi dropped Boit and the big PR’s all hung back, waiting. Why they waited will never be fully understood, but surely they didn’t believe Keflezighi would last.
In the end, only Wilson Chebet, 27, a Kenyan with a PR of 2:05:27, attacked Keflezighi. He got within 12 seconds, but never closer and on the third Monday in April Keflezighi became the first American to win the Boston Marathon in 31 years, since a Michigander named Greg Meyer had done so in 1983, in an era so distant it seems prehistoric.
In 2013, Keflezighi had been near the finish of the 2013 race, having left just before the explosions. A year later he rolled down Boylston toward that same finish line, pumping his fist and hearing the explosive noise of support and underneath it all, the chanting: U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A! Not long after the race, he received a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama. The next day he told reporters, "Thanks you for the opportunity the U.S, has given me."
In the autumn of 2005, 15 months after his Olympic silver, I visited Keflezighi in the ski town of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., which serves as high-altitude training center for many good runners. It was a curious time for Keflezighi. His marathon medal was the first for an American runner since Frank Shorter’s silver in 1976 (four years after his transcendent gold in Munich), yet a corner of the culture was slow to embrace a man who had emigrated from Eritrea at age 12. At the time, nine years ago now, then-23-year-old U.S. distance runner Dathan Ritzenhein, now a three-time Olympian and one of the best U.S. distance runners in history, said, "Meb has my respect as a great runner, a great person and a great American. But I'm sure it's hard for some people to differentiate between Meb and the East African runners who seem to dominate the sport."
And at the time, Keflezighi said, "All because my name is difficult to pronounce."
Actually, it ran much deeper. Keflezighi was wounded at the time when Shorter didn’t call him with congratulations. When I asked Shorter back then, he said, "I’m not going to talk about it."
Slowly over the years, Keflezighi has gained every ounce of acceptance that he deserves, as a great American runner. And he deserves a lot. We are a nation of immigrants, built on the dreams of those who would leave their homes to seek better lives here. It is what we are, as a nation. And it is what Keflezighi is, as a person. He is one of 11 children whose family left a country riven by a bloody civil war and moved to the United States. He was 11 at the time and he found his expression in running, earning a scholarship to UCLA.
Back in ’05 I mentioned that there are message board warriors who suggest that his success is to due to his East African genes, more than the training he had done in the U.S. "Then why did I lose to so many Americans in high school and college," he asked. And then he laughed. This is another thing about Keflezighi. If you have spent 15 minutes in his presence, talking about life, running or anything else, you will love him. His has an infectious spirit that touches everyone near him.
So something happened on the streets of Hopkinton and Ashland and Wellesley and Newton and Boston last April. It was something plucked from fantasy and something that cannot be explained through reason. On the most American of days in running, in the most American of races, an American won the Boston Marathon.