Wednesday, September 19

Full speed ahead


By Mark Singerton

At the northern end of Ethiopia, Africa, you will find the
country of Eritrea and its capital, Asmara.

At one time, Asmara was the home of UCLA freshman distance
runner Mebrahtom Keflezighi. However, the city and its people were
eventually engulfed in Eritrea’s war for independence from
neighboring Ethiopia, and Keflezighi remembers well the dangers
that he and his family faced.

"The fighting varied day to day," Keflezighi said. "Sometimes it
would be around the city, other times it was very close to our
home. I remember two of my brothers had to hide in the bushes for
fear of getting shot. (The city) was not the safest place to
be."

To avoid harms way, the Keflezighi family moved to Milan, Italy,
and it was there that Keflezighi’s father took three part-time jobs
to support his family – not an easy task. Mebrahtom, you see, has
10 siblings.

After a year in Milan, the Keflezighi’s settled in Southern
California, and with no English skills, Mebrahtom began the sixth
grade in San Diego.

It was in California that the Keflezighi family found peace, and
they gradually adapted to their new home. Nevertheless, life was
quite an adjustment for young Mebrahtom.

"It was very difficult at first," Keflezighi said. "Not only did
I not know the language, but I didn’t know the culture or the
customs of this place."

He soon got used to his new life, however, and by the time he
entered high school, Keflezighi was a star in cross country. With
three members of the Keflezighi family on the roster of its cross
country team, San Diego High School, won two CIF titles.

Ron Tabb, who coached Mebrahtom extensively in his last two
years of high school, quickly spotted Keflezighi’s talent.

"When I took over, ‘Meb’ was already a solid runner," Tabb said.
"But he was a raw talent."

Tabb, a former Olympian in the marathon, trained with Keflezighi
religiously, and feels he has become more disciplined.

Add the raw talent to the rigorous training, and the result
includes high school state and national titles. Keflezighi clocked
a 4:05.58 in the National Scholastic mile – the fastest time since
1987 – which led to national recognition as a top distance runner
and offers from Harvard, Princeton, Notre Dame, Duke and UCLA.

"I could have gone to a lot of places," Keflezighi said. "But I
decided on UCLA because academics come first. UCLA is a great
school. Most importantly for me and my family, it’s close to
home."

At 5 feet, 6 1/2 inches, Keflezighi is the smallest member of
the UCLA cross country team, but he will have the biggest impact.
He was victorious in his first two meets and placed second in the
much-heralded Stanford Invitational Oct. 1.

His victory at the Aztec Invitational, Sept. 17, in San Diego
was particularly special for him.

"I was so happy to be able to do so well there. My family, my
coaches, my counselors from high school were there to cheer me on.
It was a great experience."

UCLA cross country coach Bob Larsen sees a bright future for his
freshman harrier.

"He’s running so well right now," Larsen said. "We’re very
excited. He’s fun to watch when he gets out on that course."

Tabb agrees.

"He makes it look so easy. He’s not only a fluid runner, but a
complete runner."

But Keflezighi dwells on neither his talent nor his success in
the past.

"I consider myself as gifted, and that’s all," Keflezighi said.
"But I work hard, I study hard, and I try my best at whatever I do.
But individual awards are not my concern. I want to have fun and I
want my teammates to do well. That’s my wish."

Tabb cites discipline as the foundation for Keflezighi’s focus
on and off the track.

"’Meb’ is a true student of the sport," he said. "In my 23 years
of coaching I’ve never seen anyone like him. He’s one of the
hardest workers I’ve seen, and he doesn’t let success get to his
head. He understands that there are still things he can improve on.
But I think we’re looking at an Olympian in 2000."

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