Skip to main content

Runner Meb Keflezighi almost good as gold

By Tom Foreman, CNN
updated 9:50 AM EDT, Sat September 15, 2012
  • Olympic runner Meb Keflezighi escaped war-torn Eritrea as a child
  • Keflezighi won silver in 2004, first marathon medal for U.S. since 1970s
  • This year he became oldest marathoner to win U.S. Olympic trials
  • He finished fourth in the marathon in London

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.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:53 AM EDT, Mon August 13, 2012
The moment that Team GB's Mo Farah won the 10,000 meters was a wonderful collision of electricity.
updated 11:34 AM EDT, Mon August 13, 2012
His blistering pace and larger-than-life antics made him the king of the track in London, and bolstered his claims to be a "living legend."
updated 5:44 AM EDT, Tue August 14, 2012
Disappointment for Nigeria's Muizat Ajoke Odumosu, who came last in the 400m hurdles final, London 2012 Olympics.
The Olympics are generally won and lost long before the opening ceremony cauldron is touched by fire.
updated 3:38 AM EDT, Sun August 12, 2012
Fans of the home side, Team GB, wave Union Jack flags during the Olympic Games
CNN's Richard Quest believes the London Games will be regarded as having brought the Olympics concept home.
updated 12:33 PM EDT, Sat August 11, 2012
Strategist Alastair Campbell says he never imagined London 2012 would be quite the triumph it turned out to be.
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Tue August 14, 2012
Award-winning director Danny Boyle celebrates the best of British music in London 2012's Olympic Closing Ceremony.
updated 9:52 AM EST, Thu January 31, 2013
From Usain Bolt's record-setting achievements to an unexpected Ugandan gold, London 2012 has provided a wide array of highlights.
updated 11:05 PM EDT, Sun August 12, 2012
CNN's Amanda Davies recaps the London 2012 Olympics from the opening ceremony on July 27 to the finale on day 16.
updated 1:02 PM EDT, Sun August 12, 2012
Mo Farah and Usain Bolt celebrate their success at the London 2012 Olympic Games by copying each other's
It's been just over two weeks since the Queen parachuted into London's Olympic Stadium, her apricot dress flapping in the breeze.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Wed August 15, 2012
When the world's top marathon runners bid to win Olympic gold, they would do well to draw inspiration from one of the greatest athletes in the history of track and field.
updated 12:33 PM EDT, Sat August 11, 2012
Team GB supporters with their faces painted in Union Jack designs at the Olympic Stadium in London.
Alastair Campbell always thought London 2012 would be a success, but never imagined it would be quite the triumph it has turned out to be.
updated 6:21 AM EDT, Fri August 10, 2012
Adrien Niyonshuti is unlikely to win an Olympic medal, and he will do well to even finish his event, but his story is surely one of the most inspirational.
updated 12:05 PM EDT, Fri August 10, 2012
The colors of the Olympic Rings at the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, August 2012.
Olympic fever has cheered up London and made it a more welcoming place, but will optimism be one of the legacies of the Games?
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Fri August 10, 2012
Wojdan Shaherkani's Olympic debut was short, but sweet -- the Saudi judoka said competing at the Games was
London 2012 is the first Olympics to feature women in every national team, with Jacques Rogge hailing a "major boost for gender equality."
updated 8:40 PM EDT, Thu August 9, 2012
An impoverished South Korean gymnast has not only struck Olympic gold, but also reaped a $444,000 donation in a veritable rags to riches tale.
updated 8:46 PM EDT, Wed August 8, 2012
Britain's hero Jessica Ennis is set to cash in after winning heptathlon gold, but the poster girl of the 2012 Olympics says fame is not her motivation.
updated 3:46 AM EDT, Wed August 8, 2012
China is rallying around fallen hurdler Liu Xiang after he failed to make it past the first-round heat for a second consecutive Olympics.
updated 3:30 PM EDT, Fri August 3, 2012
The first woman to win Olympic gold almost died in a plane crash, but remarkably returned to run again for the U.S. in 1936.
updated 11:04 AM EDT, Tue August 7, 2012
Don Paige could not bear to watch the race he knew he could win. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were the death of a dream for many athletes.
updated 10:21 AM EDT, Sat August 4, 2012
Ricardo Blas Jr
While Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt grab the headlines, little-known athletes from around the world keep alive the original spirit of the Olympics.
Athletes spend years eating the right foods ... and then must resist the free fast food in the Olympic village. How do they do it?