WASHINGTON (CNN) -- When Meb Keflezighi visited the White House this week, shaking hands with President Obama and milling around with the rest of the U.S. Olympic Team, he had no medal to show off. And yet, he is undeniably a champion. Just over five and a half feet tall and less than 130 pounds, he is a running marvel who has shocked the Olympic community by putting American marathoners back in contention after many years of also-rans. And he's 37.
"I kind of fell into it by accident," Keflezighi says with the broad, infectious smile that he carries everywhere. "And now look at me."
Keflezighi's journey to the running record books has been a long, amazing trip. When he was just a child growing up in the African nation of Eritrea, his family went on the run to escape wars at home. Landing first in Italy, they soon made their way to the United States where they found refuge, but Keflezighi also found himself a stranger in a strange land. He spoke virtually no English, his family had no money, and he was not a runner. He became one the day a gym teacher challenged his class to run a mile as hard as possible. Keflezighi took off chasing a good grade, and ended up clocking a dazzling 5:20.
"I just ran as hard as I could to get an A because that's what my parents expected of me," he says, laughing at his youthful exuberance.
Through high school and college, he grew more serious about running and much faster, capturing repeated NCAA championships. By 2004, he was in the Olympics, winning silver in Athens, the first marathon medal for the United States since the legendary Frank Shorter in the 1970s.
In 2008, Keflezighi broke his hip while running in the Olympic trials and failed to make the team, although he still finished eighth. The next year he won the New York Marathon, the first American to accomplish that feat in almost 30 years.
This year he became the oldest marathoner ever to win the U.S. Olympic trials, leading the team into London. There, he went out to lead early in a hot race, developed side stitches and fell back in the middle miles while the vaunted Kenyans and the Ugandan runner who would eventually grab gold surged ahead. Keflezighi seemed, as the race announcers had predicted, doomed to a top 20 finish at best. But even back in the middle of the pack, he was far from done.
As the cobblestones ripped at his feet causing excruciating blood blisters, he pushed on. The other two Americans dropped out with injuries, and Keflezighi considered it, too. "I did think of dropping out at mile 15, but I said, 'That's not my best.' I said, 'We are going to represent our country best, and stopping was not our best.'"
Keflezighi started passing more and more runners. And shortly after the bronze medalist stepped over the line, unbelievably, here came Keflezighi, grinning, waving and streaking in for a fourth-place finish. He grabbed an American flag and held it high for the adoring crowd.
His feet were so damaged he had to ride a wheelchair through the airport to board his flight home, but he'd once again proven that he belongs among the greatest marathoners on the planet, something that virtually no other American runner has been able to say for decades. Like the title of his book, "Run to Overcome," suggests, Keflezighi has simply never learned to quit.
"I always say 'Run to win,' and that's the best I can do."
So while he brought no medal to the White House reception, at an age when many athletes have already retired, he brought something just as valuable: A fourth-place finish in a race that defied American mastery.