“One day I saw people running, and thought why are those people running? They’re crazy. They’re not chasing anything (like in) soccer. … That was the first time I was introduced to running.”
As a young kid, Meb Keflezighi witnessed people running at Morley Field for the first time when he was in junior high. It wasn’t until later that he ditched the soccer cleats and discovered his talent of running fast. Keflezighi said it all began during PE class, where he was motivated to not only get an A but get first place among his classmates to receive a t-shirt.
“To get the t-shirt you had to run six minutes and 18 seconds for the mile … so I ran as hard as I (could) and I got five minutes and 20 seconds,” Keflezighi said.
Immediately after saying this, laughter echoed throughout the Harry West Gym as a crowd of students, faculty, staff and the general public listened closely to a man who is normally seen running marathons talk about his early childhood, his running career and what it takes to achieve your goals. Keflezighi was on campus for the talk on May 7.
“The PE teacher said, ‘You’re going to go to the Olympics,’ but … I didn’t know what the Olympics were,” Keflezighi added.
After getting first place, he made friends and was able to learn English by communicating with them and taking ESL classes.
“I wanted to be the No. 1 at San Diego High School,” Keflezighi said.
However, his two older brothers were better runners at the time in school, but when both faced injuries, he became No. 1. He became CIF champion in his junior year and senior year, which led him to a full scholarship to University of California, Los Angeles in 1994.
“Academics came first before athletics even though the scholarship was for athletics; I never wanted to be seen as just an athlete when graduating,” Keflezighi said.
He took summer courses in his freshman year so he could be ahead among his peers and missed training with teammates over the summer because of classes. Keflezighi explained he didn’t hang out with friends much and missed social gatherings because he was buried in books. But he was academically driven and didn’t want to graduate as just an athlete, but as an intelligent human being, also.
Throughout his presentation, he spoke about the motivational aspects not only found in running but in life.
“When you can’t get first in the race or get an A in the class, you still have to work hard to get the B or C whatever to pass the class. Going the extra mile and do the best you can; I always say run to win. That doesn’t always mean in first place, but get the best out for yourself in whatever you do,” Keflezighi said. “Be patient, work hard, believe in yourself and great things will happen as long as you do it for the right reason.”
“He touched on the same kinds of things people deal with overcoming adversity, perseverance, hard work, we all can relate to that,” said cross country Head Coach Paul Greer, who hired Keflezighi in 2000 to be an assistant coach. “We had a lot of students today and they aren’t athletes, may not know what a distance of what a marathon is. It’s not in their world, we didn’t expect that. But we took a man who is the best in that world, brought him here to San Diego City College where he can talk about some of the life skills that are required in life for all of us.”
“He came from beginnings, his family and him came from a war that tore a country apart and where they had to literally escape for their lives. Can you imagine what adversity that is? In many ways our students deal with adversity. Maybe not in the same picture as escaping from war-torn countries, but they all come from different cultures that all have a story,” Greer added.
“He just opened up a door for me like how thankful we gotta be. My family’s from Mexico, and I was born and raised here. It’s just inspiring; some people haven’t crossed borderlines. And it touched my heart how he was motivational,” City College student Omar Ceballos said.
Keflezighi won the 2009 New York Marathon and the 2014 Boston Marathon and became the first American man to win since 1982 and 1983, respectively. Keflezighi became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1998. He also earned silver for the United States in 2004 in the Olympic Finals Marathon.
Keflezighi went on to say that that the 5:20 mile he ran in junior high was a sign that he was put on this Earth to be a runner. He realized not everyone is a runner but continued to express the importance to the crowd, whether it’s a different sport or in a different career, that each individual is meant to do something great in their life.
He said it isn’t about winning; it is about doing the best you can at your sport, or your passion, that makes you happy.