I've done all my running here: junior high, high school, college, Olympics. How much more American can you get?
--Mebrahtom Keflezighi, October 2005
He watches calmly as his defining moment is replayed. Meb Keflezighi leans forward on a soft couch in the living room of his home in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., a high-altitude training paradise amid glacial lakes and craggy gray peaks. On the television screen he is at the 2004 Olympics winning a silver medal, the first U.S. men's medal in the marathon since Frank Shorter's silver in 1976. On the couch Keflezighi is autopsying his performance--and, more painfully, its aftermath. ¬∂ There were slightly more than two miles to run in Athens when Stefano Baldini of Italy boldly dropped the hammer on Keflezighi, pulling away in the gathering darkness and dense humidity. Keflezighi, who had trained and raced brilliantly, chose to protect a silver medal finish rather than risk a collapse by racing for the gold. "If I had it to do again," he says, "I would go with him." Baldini cramped at the end, while circling the track in ancient Panathinaiko Stadium, and Keflezighi felt strong and light. But it was too late; Baldini's lead was too large. Still, the silver was sweet. Then came the postgame.
Before Keflezighi (pronounced ka-FLEZ-ghee) could wrap himself in the U.S. flag and fully celebrate his--and his adopted country's--medal, he was whisked away for drug testing. The medal was hung from his neck that night just before the closing ceremonies (the marathon was the final event), and a few hours later the Games were over. The world moved on. For Keflezighi there were no morning talk-show appearances, no lingering star-spangled glory. "Bad things for me," he says. "I would have carried the flag; I would have gone on television."
On Sunday, Nov. 6, Keflezighi will run in the New York City Marathon, trying to become the first American to win the five-borough race since Alberto Salazar did so in 1982. His Olympic silver 14 months ago, and his runner-up finish in New York 70 days later, have made him rich (he commands six-figure fees for top marathons) and given him a small degree of celebrity. "People shake my hand in airports," he says. Yet he still straddles two cultures.
Keflezighi, who was born in Ethiopia 30 years ago, has led a revival of U.S. elite-level distance running since graduating from UCLA in 1998. He has won two national championships in cross-country, three at 10,000 meters and two at 15,000 meters; broken a 15-year-old U.S. record in the 10,000 (by running 27:13.98, in 2001); and won that Olympic medal. "He's not just a leader," says U.S. marathoner Alan Culpepper. "He's been a pioneer."
Young runners idolize Keflezighi. In the summer of 2004 members of a high school cross-country team from Southern California were in Mammoth Lakes for a training camp and found Keflezighi's house. He was not home, but they left a message with one of his friends: Tell Meb he's our hero. "I've told him, 'Meb, you have no idea how many people you're inspiring,'" says Salazar.
But he confuses people too. Keflezighi immigrated to the U.S. from war-torn Eritrea at age 12 and took his first serious steps as a runner when he ran a 5:20 mile as a seventh-grader. Still, some Americans won't credit a domestic distance-running rebirth to a man born in Africa. They whisper and blog. "Meb has my respect as a great runner, a great person and a great American," says U.S. runner Dathan Ritzenhein, 23. "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."
Says Keflezighi, "All because my name is difficult to pronounce."
After winning Olympic silver, Keflezighi awaited a congratulatory call from Shorter, the 1972 gold medalist in the marathon. He is still waiting. "Meb's performances speak for themselves," Shorter told SI. As for his reasons for not calling, he said, "I'm not going to talk about it."
Meb's story begins in Eritrea a quarter century ago. Russom Keflezighi was the father of five young children (Meb was number 4), husband to a pregnant wife, Awetash, and a hunted member of the Eritrean Liberation Front, a civilian organization seeking independence for Eritrea from Ethiopia. "By 1981 the enemy was very close," he says. He would often sleep in the woods outside his village to avoid detection.
His wife urged him to leave the country rather than be jailed or killed. In July 1981 Russom walked out of his village in tears and headed for the border with Sudan, nearly 100 miles and seven days away. Two years later he moved to Milan, Italy, with the aid of an Eritrean woman who had borne him a daughter, Ruth, before he married Awetash.
Russom worked as many as four jobs at once and sent money back to Eritrea. At home the Keflezighi boys dodged violence every day. "We saw body parts on the highway," says Meb. "But it was the only life we knew." In 1986 Russom brought his family to Milan and then--14 months later, sponsored by Ruth, who was 19 years old and living in the U.S.--to San Diego.
In California, Russom worked tirelessly. He did not let his children take jobs. "I told them, 'You will have a better life if you study,'" he says. The family grew to 11 kids. Today the six oldest have college degrees, and the seventh is a freshman at Stanford.
Meb, preternaturally quiet (even now), found expression in running. When he joined his brothers on the San Diego High cross-country and track teams, his passion and discipline set him apart. By his senior year he was state champion in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters. UCLA track and cross-country coach Bob Larsen offered him a scholarship. "I liked the way he moved," says Larsen, who still coaches Keflezighi, "and look at his family. These are tough people."
A U.S. citizen since 1998, Keflezighi runs with a lapel pin on his singlet, an American flag next to an Eritrean flag. The suggestion that his East African genes are the key to his success brings a high-pitched laugh from him. If so, he asks, "why did I lose to so many Americans in high school and college?"
In fact Keflezighi has benefited as much from doggedness as from pure talent. "A phenomenal runner, but with great drive," says Deena Kastor, who won bronze in the women's Olympic marathon in 2004. Meb plotted his course for Athens long in advance and, as he told Culpepper, believed he could win a medal.
Looking toward New York City this year, Keflezighi rushed to get fit after recovering from a right thigh-muscle injury he sustained in August. But he reaches racing shape quickly, and earlier this month he ripped off six one-mile repeats in times ranging from 4:50 on the first to 4:27 on the last, with just three minutes' rest, comparable to his best interval-training sessions.
In New York City he will face defending champion Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa, world marathon record holder Paul Tergat of Kenya and 14 other runners with personal bests faster than Keflezighi's 2:09:53. "I should be able to run much faster," Meb says, unintimidated. "Right now, everything is good. Everything is right."
And there is, of course, no place quite like New York to win a race, to wave a flag and to cast aside stubborn labels.
• Read more track and field news at SI.com/more.
Keflezighi didn't get to wrap himself in the flag in Athens (above), but he does in Mammoth Lakes.
Keflezhighi's preparation for the New York race includes 12-mile runs and quick dips in ice-cold mountain waters.