By MARK SULEYMANOV
Meb Keflezighi, born in Eritrea, was separated from his dad for five years as he fled to Sudan to avoid death in a 30-year war for liberation of Ethiopia. Kefliezighi didn’t see a car until he was 10 or watch television until he was 11.
So during an appearance on Thursday in Central Park promoting Sunday’s New York City Marathon, Keflezighi, 41, praised the Team For Kids program that funds running and fitness programs for kids – giving them a chance to stay active and productive.
“I’m so honored to be here and be an ambassador,” Keflezighi said. “Working with Team For Kids, spending time with the kids and the people who put the program together has been special.”
Keflezighi, a 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the men’s marathon in Athens, Greece, will not run on Sunday. Instead, he will be at the finish line serving as a Grand Marshall. But running in the marathon would do little to solidify his legacy, considering his long list of accolades. In addition to the silver medal, he won the 2014 Boston Marathon despite slim chances, given his age at the time (39).
But the medal, despite its significance in the Olympics means a lot more to Keflezighi than just victory. It’s redemption.
“It was like a movie, like a flashback for me,” he said reminiscing. “Winning the medal in Athens was pretty special because that’s where I met my dad after [years] of separation.”
But Keflizighi was not the only person to grace the stage. Molly Huddle, 32, and Tatyana McFadden, 27, –both of whom competed in the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — promoted the event, too. Unlike Keflezighi, however, Huddle, and McFadden — a Paralympic athlete — will compete on Sunday.
A native of Elmira, New York, Huddle attended Notre Dame High School before moving on to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. However, Huddle is no stranger to running on the city pavement as she’s won the last two New York City Half Marathons in 2015 and 2016 – her time of 1:07:41 this year set an American record for a women’s only race by over 50 seconds.
“It’s still surreal [to me], I kind of, am like, ‘what am I going to be doing?” and ‘what am I doing here?’” Huddle, who is making her NYC Marathon debut, said.
Huddle admitted that she has only been on the track four times since returning from Rio de Janeiro. So, while she’s more focused on a strong performance, rather than just victory, she does have goals for Sunday’s race.
“No[laughs], I don’t think that’s reasonable, honestly,” she said in reference to winning Sunday’s women run. “I mean, I’ll stick my nose into it…but I just want to have a good day, get some experience, and see where I am. I’d love to finish in the top six or so.”
Sitting to Huddle’s left was McFadden, who used her upper body strength to move up from her wheelchair into a high-rise chair to answer questions.
Born with spina bifida, a congenital disorder that paralyzes McFadden from the waist down, it has led to Paralympic sports, where she has dominated. In her Paralympic career, the Clarksville, Maryland, resident has earned seven gold medals, six silver medals, and three bronze medals.
In addition to her Paralympic success, McFadden has won gold at the 2016 London Marathon, the 2016 Boston Marathon wheelchair division and the 2015 NYC Marathon. This has resulted in a hectic schedule.
“I felt like I was kind of globetrotting all over the U.S. but it was amazing; I got to be on Ellen, which was so much fun, and then [more] training,” McFadden said.
Sunday’s race will be McFadden’s final one of 2016. She said that following her Rio performance, she had only one week off before starting training for the NYC Marathon and other races. But she is looking forward to a break.
McFadden will be a part of the Macy’s Day Parade with Team USA in addition to visiting Florida for Thanksgiving with her family and going to Mexico for winter break.
“I’m really excited for some time off,” McFadden said.
New York Road Runners (NYRR), the company sponsoring the marathon, honored two children as part of TFK. It was a message in line with Keflezighi’s struggles as a youth or McFadden overcoming a debilitating condition to become an athletic success.
Eric and Bill Rudin, sons of the late Lewis Rudin, were on hand to present the Jack and Lewis Rudin award for runners who raised the most money for TFK. Speaking of his late father, Bill left the room with a message his dad instilled in the family.
“Life is like a marathon, you have to be a long-distance runner,” he said. “He always taught us to think; you’re going to run into potholes for life and you have to get through it.”
Photo by Mark Suleymanov