He is known around the world as simply Meb, the only runner who has won the New York Marathon, the Boston Marathon and an Olympic medal.
But when Mebrahtom Keflezighi arrived in the United States in 1987, at the age of 12, he was a refugee from the war-torn African country of Eritrea. He had limited English skills and sported a large Afro haircut and tight clothes of a style that no one else was wearing. “Everything was different,” he recalls today.
Fast-forward to 2014 and Meb, attending a formal dinner at the White House hosted by President Obama, is called “the most popular person here” by former President Jimmy Carter.
Meb started running in seventh grade only so that he could earn an A and a T-shirt in his physical education class. But he had talent, which earned him renown in the world of track and field and cross-country running.
By the time he attended that White House dinner, many people had gotten to know Meb by watching his emotional and unexpected win at the Boston Marathon earlier that year. It was the first race after the 2013 marathon, at which a bombing killed three people and injured hundreds. Having vowed “to do something positive for the people of Boston, for the running community, for the world,” Meb ran with the bombing victims’ names on his bib.
He has always tried to encourage others. When he travels, Meb will often tweet out an invitation to “break an hour with Meb.” He says these runs with amateur runners are a way to give back. “I was never able to have the opportunity when I was in high school to say I ran with an Olympian,” he says. “I am happy to be with my fellow runners. We are going on the same journey.”
— meb keflezighi (@runmeb) May 16, 2016
At age 41, Meb is currently training for Rio de Janeiro, his fourth and final Olympic Games. “Sports have taught me so many things and put me on a stage that I never imagined I would be,” he says.
Meb is the driving force behind the MEB Foundation, which promotes healthy living. (The name, while referencing his nickname, is an acronym for “Maintaining Excellent Balance.”)
He has tried to maintain the heritage of Eritrea, but also embrace what he calls the diversity and benefits that the United States has to offer. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1998. But he has returned to his native country several times. He encourages runners there too and strives to be “some kind of bridge” between Eritrea and the U.S.
“People come to me and say, ‘You are my hero.’ … I don’t know how to answer that. I just try to encourage them to do positive things. Be who you are. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Keep on going forward.”