At a time in sports when millionaire players battle billionaire owners, putting the upcoming pro football and basketball seasons at risk, and some athletes are caught using illegal drugs to try to get an edge, the inspirational story of African-American marathon champion Meb Keflezighi is worth reading.
Through hard work, perseverance, faith, and his family’s support, Meb has become an elite runner—the last American man to win an Olympic marathon medal (silver in Athens in 2004) and a New York City Marathon champion. His excellent new autobiography, Run to Overcome (Tyndale), is aptly titled; he has overcome plenty.
When Meb recovered from leg injuries to win the 2009 New York City Marathon at age 34, he endured criticism from those who argued he wasn’t “American enough” to be considered the race’s first U.S. champion since 1982. Perhaps Meb Keflezighi (Kef-LEZ-gee) was too difficult for them to pronounce. Or perhaps they couldn’t imagine facing the adversity Meb had already conquered. Born in Eritrea, Meb likely would have become a child soldier in that nation’s 30-year war with Ethiopia had his family not risked their lives to escape, first to Italy and then to San Diego.
“At times food was so scarce that I literally ate dirt,” Meb writes about growing up as one of 11 children in his family. He and his siblings spoke no English when they arrived here in 1987. Today, all 11 are college graduates or will soon be. Meb graduated from UCLA, as did his brother Merhawi, an attorney and Meb’s agent. And in America, Meb found running, a sport where a 5-foot-5, 123-pound man can excel. He writes, “You start at the same place with your fellow runners. You all finish at the same place. How you do is largely up to you.”
Meb has done far better than most. And the married father of three daughters still has major goals. Sunday, he ran in the New York City Half-Marathon coming in 15th. He hopes to win medals at the 2012 Olympic Marathon in London and the 2013 World Track & Field Championships.
Run to Overcome ends each chapter with a tip for runners, as well as what Meb calls an Overcomer’s Tip. “My goal is to help people with low self-esteem,” said Keflezighi, whose MEB Foundation seeks to inspire young people. “We’re all influenced by who raises us. I was taught to believe that anything is possible. If you put your mind to something, you can achieve it.”
He says one woman who read the book told him she was inspired to sponsor an African child to be educated in America. That’s as fine an endorsement as any author can get.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters.
(Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)