By Kim Constantinesco
The playing of the national anthem has more meaning to some Americans than others.
“When the Star-Spangled Banner plays on Sunday or any race, it brings tears to my eyes,” professional runner Meb Keflezighi said two days prior to running in the 2013 ING New York City Marathon, where he ultimately placed 23rd overall. That’s after partially tearing his soleus muscle in early-September and then taking a bad fall on a training run three weeks before the November 3rd race. Imagine what the proud American could have done if he had been healthy?
Keflezighi is an Olympic marathon silver medalist (Athens 2004) and the winner of the 2009 New York City marathon. In fact, he became the first American man to win the storied race since 1982. However, that’s not exactly why Keflezighi gets emotional during the Star-Spangled banner. His eyes water because of the journey that brought him to the United States as a refugee.
The 38-year-old spent his early childhood playing soccer barefoot in Africa. He didn’t even use a real soccer ball. Keflezighi and his friends rolled up their socks, stuffed them into plastic (“so the ball would bounce,” Keflezighi said), and placed the plastic inside whatever leather they could find.
Until he was 12-years-old, Keflezighi lived in Eritrea, which is bordered by Sudan to the west and Ethiopia to the south, with his parents and five siblings at the time (he comes from a family of 11 kids). He didn’t see a car until the age of ten and and it wasn’t until he was 11-years-old that he saw a television for the first time.
At the time, Eritrea was engaged in a 30-year war for liberation from Ethiopia. Keflezighi’s father, Russom, supported the liberation efforts, which put his life in jeopardy often.
“In the war, my dad was wanted by the Ethiopian military, and he had to make a decision. To stay, he was going to get prison or he was going to get killed. My mom told him to go.”
Russom fled the country, leaving his growing family behind. He went to Milan, Italy, and frequently sent money back to his family until he could afford to to bring them to Italy five years later.
From there, the Keflezighi’s decided that moving to the United States was their best option. After one year of living in Italy, the family moved to San Diego in 1987, where Meb didn’t know a lick of English.
“I look up to my parents,” Keflezighi said. “They gave everything to give opportunities to their kids. They wanted a better future for their kids and the only land that would allow that was the United States…I’m thankful that they made that decision.”
“When we came to the United States, basically my parents just told us, ‘This opportunity you have here, we didn’t have it, your cousins didn’t have it, your uncles didn’t have it, so don’t waste it.'”
Keflezighi took his parents’ advice to heart and…ran with it.
At Roosevelt Junior High School in San Diego, Keflezighi ran his first official timed mile. It was a mandatory run in gym class. His teacher told the entire class that whoever ran fast and put forth their best effort would get an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ as well as a t-shirt. Keflezighi wanted the t-shirt badly and ended up running a 5:20 mile.
“It did help that I played soccer in Etirea and I also played soccer when I was in Italy,” Keflezighi said of his seemingly natural ability to run.
Keflezighi went on to run in high school, where he attained a 3.95 GPA, and earned a full scholarship to run at UCLA. He still has his yellow tassel hanging from the rearview mirror of his car.
“I have my graduation tassel on my car because I take pride in my education.”
With multiple collegiate championships, Keflezighi quickly turned pro and the sponsorship offers came rolling in.
Now at the age of 38, those in the running community are wondering if Keflezighi’s fastest days are behind him. From the looks of it, he’s still going strong. He took first place in the 2012 U.S. Olympic marathon trials and fourth place in the 2012 Olympic games.
When Keflezighi isn’t pounding the pavement, he can be found at home spending quality time with his wife and two daughters.
“Family is very important to me because that’s what I knew before anything else, and to have my own family it means a lot because it’s my sense of motivation,” Keflezighi said.
As Keflezighi toes starting lines around the world, he looks back on his family life and credits the sacrifices his parents made to help him get to this point.
“To me, being an American is to get the best out of yourself,” Keflezighi said.
For Keflezighi, a hand over the heart and tears in the eyes as the Star-Spangled Banner plays means more than just national pride. It’s a symbol of family pride and strength, and it gives him enough fuel in the heart to propel him to some of the fastest marathon times in the world, where running no longer means life or death.