Aug. 5, 2012
By Bill Bennett
Family has always been an important element in the life of Mebrahtom (Meb) Keflezighi. When he was a child growing up in Asmara, Eritrea, his parents, Russom and Awetash, protected their six children as their native country was embroiled in a war of independence against Ethiopia. Escaping the conflict, the family lived in Italy for a time before moving to San Diego when Meb was 12, in search of better educational opportunities for their children, which now numbers 11.
Keflezighi began to make a name for himself as a prep distance runner at San Diego HS and was recruited to UCLA by then-head coach Bob Larsen, who has been Keflezighi's coach throughout his collegiate (1994-98) and professional career. As a Bruin, Keflezighi became the greatest distance runner in school history. In 1997, he won four NCAA distance titles - the 5,000m indoor title, outdoor titles in the 5,000m and 10,000m to become only the third athlete in NCAA history to complete this double in the same season, and UCLA's first-ever cross country title. Keflezighi earned a total of 12 All-America honors in his four-year Bruin career. Following his senior season at UCLA, Keflezighi returned to his hometown of San Diego to take the U.S. oath and become an American citizen.
Training under Larsen at the high-level altitude site of Mammoth Lakes, CA, Keflezighi has become one of the top distance runners in U. S. history. The London Olympics will be his third representing the U. S. In 2000, he placed 12th in the 10,000m despite coming down with the flu during the Games. In 2004, he won the silver medal in the marathon to become the first U.S. marathon medalist since 1976. At the age of 36, Keflezighi became the oldest winner of the U. S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2012, and he will represent the U.S. in the marathon on Aug. 12, the last day of the London Olympics. Twenty-four Keflezighi family members will make the trip to London to support him in his bid for another marathon medal.
Keflezighi took time out from his busy training schedule as he prepares for the 2012 London Olympics marathon to participate in a Q&A with uclabruins.com.
Q: As a UCLA junior in 1997 you won four NCAA distance championships. During your Bruin career, you also set school records in the 5,000m/10,000m. Looking back, what are some of your favorite Bruin memories?
A: I have so many great memories from my time at UCLA. During my freshman year, the UCLA men's basketball team won the NCAA Championship. That was a great time for the University. For me, 1997 was great because I won four NCAA Championships in one year. It was great to achieve a goal after all those years. It was only after winning these NCAA Championships that I considered becoming a professional runner. Until I graduated from UCLA, my number one priority was academics, over athletics. Once I graduated, I decided to make my running my priority. In addition to my athletic achievements, I enjoyed meeting great people, teammates, classmates and staff.
Q: In 1998, following your senior year at UCLA, you had to decide if you were going to run for your native country of Eritrea or for the U.S. In the summer of 1998, you became a naturalized American citizen. What were the factors involved in your decision to become a U. S. citizen?
A: There were many factors. At that point in my life, I had been in each country for about 10 years. Some members of my family wanted me to run for Eritrea, while others wanted me to run for the USA. Ultimately, I made the decision based on my future. While it was a very difficult decision to make at that time, I can look back and say I made the right decision. I have been able to be a leader in the resurgence of American distance running and at the same time not forget my roots.
Q: At the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, you placed second in the marathon and won the silver medal in a then-personal best time 2:11.29. As you entered the Olympic Stadium, describe how you felt knowing you were about to become the first American since 1976 to win an Olympic marathon medal.
A: Unlike the 100 meters, the marathon usually gives you minutes to savor a good performance. During the last two miles of the 2004 Olympics Marathon, all of the people and places on my journey to that point flashed in my mind. I was able to think about all of the people who helped me achieve my dreams. I didn't have to wait until I got to the finish line to realize I had achieved my dream.
Q: Bob Larsen has been your coach since your UCLA career and through your professional long distance career. Describe the relationship you have with Coach Larsen, both on and off the track.
A: Coach Larsen and I met when I was 18 and he recruited me to UCLA. We have been working together for about 18 years. Coach Larsen has been a father figure who is not only concerned about his athletes being good runners, but being good people. We have gone through the ups and downs of our lives and in the sport together. Coach Larsen gives me a lot of freedom, and we now make a lot of the training decisions together.
Q: In 2010 you were inducted into the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame. What were your feelings and emotions when you were informed of your honor?
A: This is one of the biggest honors I have ever received. I chose UCLA to be a part of the tradition established by John Wooden, Rafer Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Walton, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and all of the amazing track and field stars. To not only attend the same school, but also be in the prestigious Hall of Fame with them is amazing.
Q: Your home is Mammoth Lakes, CA, where you train at an altitude of over 7,000 feet above sea level. Please describe one of your daily workouts.
A: I have 12 running workouts a week, which is composed of two runs a day on Monday to Friday, and just one time on Saturday and Sunday. My Sunday is usually a long run that can be anywhere from 20-28 miles. In a week, I run about 100-130 miles during a marathon training cycle. I also go to the gym six days a week to do core workouts.
Q: You won the 2012 U.S. Marathon Trials in a personal-best time of 2:09.08, with Ryan Hall placing second and Abdi Abdirahman finishing third. What are the goals and aspirations for yourself and your teammates heading into the Olympics?
A: We are sending a very strong team to the Olympics this year. Any one of us can have a great day and medal. My goal is to be as competitive as possible with the field and go for a medal. This will be my last Olympic Games, so I would like to do something special. A medal and/or a personal-best would be a nice way to finish my Olympic career. After the Olympics, I want to run a few more marathons before I retire from the sport of running.
To learn more about the life and running career of Meb Keflezighi, please visit www.marathonmeb.com.