Champion for Christ: Meb Keflezighi

By Stephen Tony

 My early years as a runner were plagued with numerous injuries. Stress-fractures, shins splints, knee issues. It seemed like I couldn’t get through a season without getting sidelined. I looked desperately for a path forward, and one person who gave me hope was Meb.

Meb Keflezighi was going through his share of injuries around the time I began running. The difference being he was a world class-runner with a silver medal from the Athens Olympics. Born in Eritrea, the country was being torn apart by civil war. His father had embarked on a solo 200-mile trek to find passage to Europe and raised finances to bring Meb and the rest of the family with him. They ultimately settled in California, where a gym teacher discovered Meb’s talent for running. Meb was a standout athlete at UCLA, and after his 2004 Olympic medal, the sky seemed like the limits.

That was before the 2008 Marathon Trials. The heavy favorite, Meb broke his hip in the middle of the race and failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. On top of that a long-time friend and training partner of his, Ryan Shay, died during the race due to heart-related issues. It seemed like the sport that had been so good to him had betrayed him. And if all Meb cared about was running he may have quit there. But he didn’t. A year later he won the New York Marathon. As I read a Runner’s World article about his story, I was amazed at how he could recover from such a setback. But the article gave an answer to that. Meb is a devout Christian, and he made it clear that his faith is what got him through the aftermath of 2008. At the time Meb was uncertain if he should continue competing professionally, so he left it up to God. If he couldn’t recover, if he couldn’t return to the same level of competitiveness, he would stop. But if he had an opportunity to get back to 100%, he’d take it as a sign God wasn’t done with his running career.

God was far from done. I kept track of Meb after that article and was blessed to see an incredible journey unfold. After New York, Meb won the Olympic Marathon Trials for the 2012 Olympics. In the Olympic marathon, Meb started out poorly but rallied in the final miles to finish 4th. While he had just missed the podium, Meb was positive about his performance.

And then there was Boston. I imagine many of us reading this remember the Boston bombings. The replaying of the explosion, the photos of terrified and injured athletes and spectators. As a runner, it broke my heart seeing what should have been a joyous occasion turn into a nightmare. One year later in 2014, Boston had redemption on its mind and Meb wanted to be a part of that. An American hadn’t won Boston in 31 years. At 38 years old, and far from the fastest in the field, Meb’s goal was to bring a win to his adopted home country. He had written the names of those who had perished in the bombings on his race bib. This race was for them, it was for the U.S, it was for Boston. Meb made a breakaway from the leaders, praying “God, give me the strength to do this… thy will be done” And they never caught him. As he turned on to Boylston street to finish, he made the sign of the cross bringing a victory of redemption home. He even did some pushups after finishing! A year ago Boston had been dead. And Meb brought it back to life. The parallels to Christ’s death and resurrection were on my mind as I watched his victory.

What strikes me the most about Meb, more than his humility in victory, is how unshaken he is in defeat. Meb never would have gotten to Boston 2014 if he hadn’t trusted God back in the failures of 2008. Or if he had gotten discouraged by not medaling in London. I saw this clearly in his final Olympics at Rio. To my disappointment, I saw Meb fade from the leaders early. It was raining, and as he approached the finish line in 33rd place he slipped and collapsed right in front of the finish. Here was a 4-time Olympian, a silver medalist, marathon champion of New York and Boston. And his Olympic career ended with a wipeout. After following Meb for years I felt like he didn’t get the ending he deserved. To my surprise, Meb began doing push-ups. The same thing he’d done after winning Boston. Instead of letting his poor performance and fall deflate him, he celebrated the finish and graciously ended his final Olympic race. What allowed him to handle the failure as well as his victories? His faith in Christ and His plan for his life. To me, how Meb acted at Rio makes him more of a champion that his Boston or New York win.

As Christians, I hope we can imitate Meb’s example of taking the victories AND the failures of life like a champion. How can we do this? By believing in our Savior who has a plan for us. And by His cross, death, and resurrection He showed that even the failures in our life can be turned into something redemptive. This theme played out over and over in Meb’s life, and it can be the same in our lives if we entrust our efforts to Him.

May 7, 2020 - 12:52pm
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