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Olympic marathoner Guor Marial is South Sudan's symbol of hope


Three weeks ago, Guor Marial was not on the invite list for the London Olympics. He had done his part. He'd made the Olympic A qualifying standard (2:15:00) in both of the marathons he had run -- a 2:14:32 last fall in Minnesota and a 2:12:55 in San Diego in June. But it still took a runner/lawyer friend in California, a journalist in Chicago, the British consulate in New York, a non-profit in D.C., a congressman in Arizona, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the United States and International Olympic committees to enable him to compete in London as a symbol of hope that the world can be brought together.

On Sunday morning at 11, on The Mall that runs to Buckingham Palace, Marial will toe the starting line of the Olympic marathon course. He will be the very first Olympian from the 13-month-old nation of South Sudan, and while he will not contend for the gold, he will do something far more rare. He will place the first stone -- or be the first stone -- in the building of a country's athletic tradition.

South Sudan has no national Olympic committee and thus is technically not eligible to send athletes to the Games. When the IOC first learned of Marial's qualification time, it initially offered the 28-year-old a chance to run for Sudan. Without a moment's thought, he declined. The number of his relatives who were killed in the civil war that ravaged southern Sudan "would reach almost 40 people," he says. "And that's not including extended family."

But the Olympics are every runner's dream, so even though he politely declined, Marial sat down and wrote thank you letters to officials in Sudan and to the IOC. And then people started coming together for him so that he could complete an improbable journey to London.

It wasn't the first of Marial's improbable journeys.

"How did I end up living in Concord, New Hampshire, without my parents?"

That's the opening line of Guor Marial's high school essay entitled My Story. It practically screams with bewilderment, as if Marial is asking himself how his life could have changed so much, so quickly. How could he have escaped civil war in southern Sudan -- a war that raged for almost a half century before it ended in 2005 -- when so many of his relatives perished, falling prey to illness, starvation, and Sudanese soldiers?

"It was very clear to me when I was 5," Marial says, "that people are dying and there are people killing us."

In his essay, Marial wrote: "During the school year, we had to flee the town almost every day because of the gunfire. There was a lot of violence in that place. I still remember being hungry from having no food to eat. People were killed, and we had to run into the jungle and sleep with no bed or even anything to cover us. We used to run into the jungle that was full of yellow mosquitoes and black-brown butterflies, which if they bit you, your skin bleeds right away. Therefore my dad chose for me to go and stay with my uncle so I could be safe, go to school and get a good education. He assumed that if I stayed there, I might end up dead like my older brother who got killed in May of 2000 and like my other seven brothers and sisters who were killed in the civil war."

It was 1993 when Marial's father decided that his son would go to stay with his uncle in Khartoum. But he had no money for the bus from Bentiu, in what is now South Sudan, nor did he have enough food to sustain Marial for the 450-mile trip. So Marial, at just 8 years old, started working for a Sudanese soldier, ironing his clothes and running errands.

In the fall of '94, Marial says, he and some other boys crossed the Nile River to get mangos and nuts -- as they often did -- when they came across a group of Arabic-speaking nomadic men. Marial did not speak Arabic well, but understood that the men were offering food and milk, if only the boys would walk to their camp six miles away. When they arrived, the boys were separated. The next day they were put to work, taking care of goats and sheep and herding cows.

"It was slaving, basically," Marial says.

After a week, Marial says he and another boy made a plan to escape. On a Sunday morning, they ran into the woods and hid in a cave.

"When we were coming [to the camp] we were coming with the sun," Marial says. "So we wait until the sun come up, and go in the opposite direction."

By the evening, the boys had found the Nile, and they followed it back to Bentiu.

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Again, Marial started working for a soldier, this time an officer and his wife, fetching water for showers, preparing lunch, shopping for food, and then cleaning shoes at the market to make a bit of money on the side. At least the man let Marial go to school, which was a six-mile run each way. But when he told his employer that he would like his wages and to go back to his family, the man locked him in the house, Marial says.

One day when the door was left open, Marial escaped to a friend's house, found one of his mother's cousins from Khartoum, and went north with the man, arriving three years later than his father had intended.

From My Story:

"I went to stay with my uncle [Marial] in Khartoum. He was living in a small town called Jabel that was 20 miles away from Khartoum. At the time, my uncle was working with the Non Government Organization (NGO) to help the refugees. He worked there for eight years, from 1992 until 1999. In September of 1999, the Sudanese government accused my uncle of having a connection with the Southern Sudan People Liberation Army (SSPLA). He was not a member of any political movement. His job was to help and to translate language for refugees. This happened on November 2, 1999. They arrested him at his work place and took him to where none of his co-workers or us knew where they took him. ... I went to bed and left my aunt [Zaneb] sitting at the dining room table with her arms around her head. ...

"On the next day, at midnight, a group of soldiers came to my house. We were all sleeping, except Zaneb, who was the only one still awake. They knocked on our house door. She got up and opened the door for them. My aunt was desperately hoping that it was my uncle knocking. It was not him. It actually was a group of soldiers that were carrying weapons and long black sticks. At that time I didn't know how they got into the house. All I heard was the screaming and the voices of people. I immediately jumped out of my bed, followed by Luba [Guol's cousin]. I closed the door behind me and told Luba 'don't move.' As I turned my head toward where the noise came from, I saw someone out of the corner of my left eye jump out with a gun and hit me on my left jaw. I fell to the ground and lost consciousness. They left afterward and left us lying on the ground. We stayed there until the next morning. At 6 a.m., my aunt called the church people to take us to Khartoum hospital.

"That was when I realized that my six bottom teeth and my jaw were broken."

Officials from Marial's church gave him and his aunt train tickets to Egypt. The United Nations workers took Marial to a dental hospital and gave him food. A year-and-a-half after Guor arrived in Egypt, his unclefinally showed up there, having survived his ordeal in Khartoum. He had escaped his captors by playing dead amid soldiers' gunfire. Months later, Marial and his uncle were granted asylum in the United States.

In the summer of 2001, Marial and his uncle were placed in New Hampshire by the International Organization for Migration, and Guor started learning English. He had not finished fifth grade in Sudan, but he went straight into ninth in the U.S. "Given that I didn't know English real well, and I did not have a good background of academic, it was very, very challenging," Marial says.

In 2003, in search of better weather, Marial's uncle moved to Florida, leaving Guor to live with a local family. By that time he was running track. A gym teacher at Concord High had noticed his indefatigability and sent him to the track coach, Rusty Cofrin, who realized Marial's prowess when Guor ran him silly while wearing basketball shoes.

Marial quickly became popular with the team, and when his uncle left for Florida, he moved in with teammate Steve Ford and his parents, Mary Lou and Larry. The Fords later relocated to Massachusetts, so Marial moved in with coach Cofrin. Finally, he went to live in the place that he still calls "home" -- with teammate Peter Samuels and his parents, Annie and Richard.

"They welcomed me in their house like their son," Marial says.

Marial was a good student, and an extremely good but not phenom-level distance runner. The fact that he was still learning English, and thus struggled on his SAT, scared off many college coaches. But not Corey Ihmels of Iowa State.

"He was a risk, because you didn't know if he'd be a [NCAA] qualifier," Ihmels says. "For whatever reason, I kept recruiting him. We weren't that good at the time and there was something about him I really liked. Once I got him on campus, I felt, man, he's going to blossom here. It was a leap of faith."

Sort of.

Ihmels was a sub-four minute miler at Iowa State in the 1990s and had run with some outstanding Kenyans. He'd seen how rapidly they adjusted to college, so he knew they could succeed in the classroom. (Iowa State also has a strong Sudanese population. The late John Garang, a political leader in southern Sudan during the civil war and an icon to many people there, got his Ph.D. at Iowa State.)

Marial was given a scholarship, and just three days before classes started the NCAA granted him an academic waiver, meaning that he could attend Iowa State but would have to sit out his first year of running in order to concentrate on school. Marial hit the books, hard, choosing to study chemistry so that he can become a doctor one day. Even when he became eligible to run, in his second year, he studied furiously.

"When we traveled to a race," Ihmels says, "he's in books the whole time. On the bus to the airport, on the plane, in the lobby of the hotel. When he wasn't competing, he had a book open. You didn't know each semester if he was going to make it through ... and he worked extremely hard to do it."

Ihmels had some conversations with Marial when the struggling student was nearly in tears.

"Like, Why is everything so hard for me?" Ihmels says. "He's a bright kid. I feel like he almost had to translate everything."

And Marial would refuse the offer of extra time on tests. "He didn't want to be that guy," Ihmels says.

Running more than 100 miles each week, and studying during every moment he could, Marial earned All-America honors in cross-country. By track season, though, he struggled with back pain. At the Big 12 Conference meet, he might run the 10,000 meters on Friday and shuffle off the track like an old man, only to return to score points in the 5,000 on Sunday. Ihmels suggests that the stress Marial was under might have contributed to his injury. Marial says that the trouble started in high school when a water container fell on his back during his job moving fruit boxes at a grocery store. Sitting for hours on end studying probably didn't help.

But Marial's back has gotten better. After college, he moved to Flagstaff, AZ., to train. He still has a job working 20 hours each week at a home for mentally impaired adults, but it's far less stressful and time-consuming than his college regimen. And so he has begun to blossom as a runner.

"People did not understand why I was not running fast times in high school or college," says the former cross-country All-America. "They do not understand how my life was day in and day out. If I could just train, I told my coach, I have potential."

After college, in October 2011, Marial hit the Olympic standard in the Twin Cities Marathon. It was the first time he'd ever run one. He also met Brad Poore, an excellent runner who was also a criminal defense attorney in California. Poore had traveled to Kenya and met Kenyans on the racing circuit, but he was intrigued by meeting a runner from South Sudan.

When Marial told Poore that he could run at the Olympics only for Sudan, Poore sprang into action. One of his most important steps was to try to get Marial's story to the public.

"I had reached out to a lot of media," Poore says. No one seized on the story. Then Philip Hersh, a veteran Olympic sports writer at the Chicago Tribune, heard about it while he was reporting a story on Lopez Lomong, a U.S. Olympic runner who was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan and is now an American citizen. Hersh recognized that Marial's story was important.

In a July 18 article, just a week-and-a-half before the start of the London Games, Hersh introduced Marial to the world. As soon as that article hit, the non-profit Refugees International put out a press release about him and the media avalanche began. Just days later, the IOC sent a new invitation to Marial, this time saying that he could run as a South Sudanese citizen, but under the Olympic flag and in an Olympic uniform.

Then the real work began.

Marial had no passport or visa, so Poore started devouring information about regulations for refugees who want to travel. And that's when everyone started coming together. The British embassy in New York and the UK Border Agency pushed through a visa. Congressman Paul Gosar of Arizona, with the support of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the collaboration of the USOC, helped get refugee travel documents on the fast track.

(Marial's biggest concern once he received approval to run was his cell phone bill. All the interview requests put him hundreds of dollars over his limit. Poore says that Verizon wouldn't comp his bill, but let him pay $100 retroactively for unlimited minutes for the month.)

The travel documents did not arrive soon enough for Marial to make the Olympic opening ceremony, which he watched from Flagstaff, but they came in time for him to arrive in London on Friday, Aug. 3.

"My case was, I'd rather give up my dream and wait for another four years and either run for the United States or for South Sudan," says Marial, who hopes to eventually have dual citizenship. "That's what came to my head. I'd rather sit out and wait [than run for Sudan]."

Fortunately for him, he won't have to. He will run with the Olympic rings on his uniform. The interlocking circles, which represent the five continents of the world, are perfectly symbolic.

As Poore puts it: "Guor Marial is not a man without a team. The world is his team."

He continues. "We thank you for supporting him accordingly."

You're quite welcome.