Pride, rue, chagrin, the emotions any of us feel about our name can run a wide gamut. For instance, my name is Toni, but as you notice, it ends in an I, rather than a Y. That’s because in Poland, birthplace of my mother, they spell Anthony as Antoni, hence, Toni, not Tony (though I answer to both).
Since I reached my majority, no big deal, but as a young boy growing up in the American Midwest, having what my peers considered a girl’s name often proved challenging. In fact, it’s one reason why I started to run. It was easier and less painful than fighting every time some chump chided me with my ‘girl’s name’ anomaly.
Which brings us to Meb Keflezighi, the American marathon star who was surprised by several hundred friends, relatives, and fans Monday night (November 13, 2017) at San Diego’s Liberty Station two weeks after he concluded his remarkable career with an 11th place finish at the TCS New York City Marathon at age 42. The retirement celebration also raised funds benefiting the MEB Foundation, which promotes health education and fitness programs for youth.
The evening brought into relief once again just how far the man has come. Not just through the long journey from war-torn Eritrea to Italy and finally America as a 12 year-old boy, or on the many ups and downs of his competitive career, from his days at San Diego High to UCLA all the way to the Mount Rushmore of American distance running. No, I mean simply in terms of culture.
Like the name Meb for instance. The first time you hear it, sounds more like a distance than a name.
“How far did you run today?”
“I got in about sixteen Mebs, and threw in a couple of Hawis for good measure.”
But no matter the obstacle, be it cultural or sporting, Meb always found a way to surmount it and then triumph, while including many, many others in those triumphs along the way.
This wasn’t the first time the San Diego community had gathered to celebrate Meb, which is really the diminutive for Mebrahtom, meaning ‘let there be light’ in Eritrea’s native Tigrinya language.
After his historic silver medal run at the Athens Olympic Marathon in 2004 there was such a gathering. Also, following his win in the TCS New York City Marathon in 2009, and again in 2015 when he was named Man of the Year at the Taste for Sport gala at the Hall of Champions in Balboa Park to celebrate his miraculous victory at the emotionally-charged 2014 Boston Marathon just one year after the finish-line bombings.
I had the honor of emceeing last night’s event, and reminisced with Meb as he contemplated his illustrious career while considering his work ahead with the MEB Foundation.
During our Q&A session Meb told the audience that if he had one career do-over, it would have been Athens 2004. where he would have answered Italian Stefano Baldini‘s gold-medal move at 35km. But in the heat of battle, he couldn’t get his own marathon debut in New York ’02 out of his mind where he faded in the final miles. So in Athens, he held back to protect the silver medal, only to realize at the finish that he had energy left in the tank, while Baldini was spent. But that’s racing.
It was a wonderful evening of celebration and salutes, memories and meaning. A raffle was held afterwards to raise funds of the MEB Foundation, and along with all the family, friends, and fans, several local TV news crews were on hand, as was San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who proclaimed November 13th as Meb Keflezighi Day in San Diego.
That’s called making a name for yourself, I’d say.