Meb Keflezghi, an athlete whom Eritreans are devoted fans of, is a USA National champion in cross country, having won the in 2001, 2002, and 2009. Mebrahitom’s fastest times include: the 1998 record of 3:42.29 for 150 m, 13:11.77for 5000 m set in 2000, and the epic 27:13.98 breaking a record. On April 21, 2014 Meb became the first American to win the Boston marathon. Author to his own autobiography Run to overcome Mebrahitu is our guest today.
- -Born in Eritrea, right?
Yes, I was born in Asmara and grew up in Adi Gombolo. I left Eritrea when I was ten years old. I lived in Italy, Milano, for a year and a half and then settled in the USA. I am an athlete, I run. I started running for grades when I was in 7th grade. I didn’t think I was actually going to make a career out of it. Almost 20 years ago, though, I started running professionally; at that time I think I was 23. First time I ever thought I was good at running was when I was in UCLA and started doing well in 5ks and 10ks, but before that my focus was all academic.
- -So how has it been from the beginning? Now that you are 42 a summary of a career which began at 23 would be…
I started running when I was 15 years old and I am 42 years old, so a lot of things happened in the middle. Being a professional athlete is wonderful. Being able to run all over the world: world championships and marathons while making a career out of something you love has been exciting. Side by side to the thrills of my profession a big and nonstop sense of responsibility comes along. You are a public face so there is a big responsibility in being able to make people proud based on your performance. I am very fortunate to be one of the known athletes; it is a great honor. People want to meet you, greet you and they want to know you. In the US I spend an hour and hour and half just to greet a line of fans; I end up leaving through the backdoor. So for me it is not about how fast I run but how I live up to expectations: expectation of you as a professional, as Eritrean and an American. People expect you to excel, so I technically live my profession.
- -In 2004 Zerisenay was a bronze medalist and around the same time you got a silver medal for America. What are your memories from them?
I was at a training camp in an island and I saw on TV Zeriesenay getting a bronze medal for Eritrea, and in few words, I was overjoyed. Originally I was supposed to be running the 10k with Zerisenay; my chance of winning were higher in a 10k than in a marathon. However, thank God I didn’t do the 10k because to this day I think Zerisenay and I would have run neck to neck. I am glad I wasn’t there.
- -But it could have been a spectacular scene to watch.
Maybe, but also heart breaking for the two of us. Zerisenay was the first medalist ever for Eritrea, if I had taken that for the US, I am sure the legacy wouldn’t have been the same. I am an Eritrean, yes, but the race would have been America versus Eritrea… You know my chances were higher though; at that time already had been a marathon record holder and a National champion. I had been winning a lot of races so people suggested I’d do the 10k just so that I win certainty. Nevertheless I wanted to be part of the Athens traditional course and I was delighted Zerisenay won a medal. I ended up winning a week later, so one way or another that was a double win for us as Eritreans. I think I saw Zerisenay on Wednesday, I went to his room and congratulated him. I promised him I would do my best to win the marathon. So it was great.
- -Why don’t you run for Eritrea?
That is a though question but also a good one because I don’t think a lot of people know why I don’t run for Eritrea. The reason is because I lived here only for ten years and most of my life is based in America, so most of my memories are from the US. My dad and my brother wanted me to run for Eritrea, my mother told me to follow my heart, but I actually did contemplate running for Eritrea in 1996. Back then Eritrea did not compete in 1996 neither in 2000. So I did wait, I waited long. And as an athlete it is not strategic to lose that much time. I couldn’t wait longer and I had just gotten American citizenship in 1998 so I decided to run for America. I thought if I could run for America I would still represent Eritrea. I am Eritrean by birth, my name is Eritrean and I look Eritrean, people ask my name and realize it is not an American name and they tend to ask about where I come from and all. . So it was still a very good decision; a win-win case because I am Eritrean and American.
- -Breaking the record of Boston after almost 30 years.
My victory was not the record, it was the memory. My victory that day was an emotional one because of the bombing in 2013. The year after, even though I had many better options I decided to compete in the place where my heart laid for long. During the attack I was actually there. If you are an athlete you don’t get to normally enjoy the races the way the spectators do and therefore that year I decided to watch the Boston marathon and I waited and waited but the race hadn’t started yet so I decided to leave. As soon as I left the bombing took place. I missed it by 5 minutes. I was a spectator myself but three other spectators died on spot. So I put my heart on the racing track for the honor and remembrance of the event. And well it was great because I was the first American to win the race in 31 years and I was grateful; a tribute to the people that lost loved ones during the bombing of 2013.
- -You are very active in diplomatic activities, too, care to tell us something?
In 2005 I did an EDF session for development of the federation; I helped with raising funds. I have a lot of sponsors, so I try to involve them as much as I can with the activities that I do besides running. They see me for my kindness; a way through which we help each other to embrace people and show care. Kindness is a typical Eritrean gesture I learned from the best and I am simply doing my part because I am capable of helping. I am fortunate to be in a position to extend assistance. I am an ambassador for many companies. I work with things that have to do with immigrants and I keep in touch with the Eritrean Embassy to America in DC.
I generally care about people so whether it is the State Department or the Eritrean Embassy I try to be involved as much as I can and when I meet politicians and big names I seize the moment to tell them about my country, how hard the Eritrean people work and everything I believe westerners don’t understand about Eritrea.
Last year I was invited here to Eritrea for the 25th independence anniversary as a diplomat and I got a chance to meet President Isaias Afwerki. I also had a chance to meet President Barack Obama and had dinner with him. He first called me from his plane to congratulate me on the Boston victory and later sent me an invitation through email for an African American Leaders’ Summit. I went to the White House; my wife Yordanos was with me. Zuma was next to me, Jim Carter was present and I spoke to the First Lady too. So, I seize these sort of moments that come outside of running to talk and discuss about Eritrea, our culture and our people. In 2000 I met president Clinton, I was not even an Olympian, but I said “Mr. President my name is Mebrahtom Kiflezghi, I was born in Eritrea. Can I have 30 seconds of your time?” He put his arm around me and said “what can I help you with?” and I said: “you know the Ethiopia Eritrea conflict I hope you guys do the right thing and sign up for a peace treaty”. He said “well, we’re doing our best”. So for me that was enough, I am in no position to call the White House and say “hey what are you doing about this and that?” Nonetheless I do what I can to talk about my country and people as much as I can.
- -Future plans
I want to do more in Eritrea, definitely; whether it is athletics or diplomacy. And I wish to keep working on my foundation, the Meb foundation. Spending more time with my family in Eritrea is also on top of my list.
- -Thank you Meb!