The curious case of U.S. bobsledder Abraham Morlu

Abraham Morlu
Courtesy USBSF

Abraham Morlu summarized four sports careers over three continents and the possibility of a second Olympics appearance into a 90-minute phone conversation.

Then, he added a postscript.

“I’m not a great storyteller,” Morlu said.

That’s a shame, because the quiet bobsledder has quite a story to tell.

Morlu, 32, wants to become the first of his kind, an Olympian to compete in a Summer Games for one country and a Winter Games for a distinctly different country,* Olympic historians believe.

His chances looked great to start the bobsled season in the fall. He was part of U.S. driver Nick Cunningham‘s four-man crew at the first three World Cup stops.

His odds since declined.

He joined Cunningham in the two-man last week but not the four-man. He’s not in either the two- or four-man lineups for the final World Cup before the U.S. Olympic Team is named this weekend.

Still, it’s remarkable he’s gotten this far.

Morlu pushed for the red and white of Switzerland one year ago. He sprinted for the West African nation of Liberia as recently as 2010 and as far back as the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

He’s tried professional football and, in spare time between international summer and winter sports, enjoyed stunt motorcycle riding as an escape.

“I remember back when I first decided to do Olympic sports,” Morlu said. “I wanted to do it [the Olympics] twice. The first time to soak it all in; I can’t believe I’m here. The second time to win a medal. My goal in life was to be a two-time Olympian.”

Morlu was born in Liberia in 1981, the second of four children, and lived in the Guinean border town of Yekepa until age 7.

Liberia was founded by freed American and Caribbean slaves in the first half of the 19th century but mostly inhabited by native Africans. It is home to some four million people, roughly the population of Los Angeles, and is about the size of Ohio.

In 1980, a military coup overthrew and killed president William Tolbert. Violence erupted in 1989 with the onset of the first of two civil wars that claimed 150,000 lives and led to the election of Charles Taylor as president in 1997.

Morlu escaped one year before the civil war. He arrived in the U.S. with his mother, while his two brothers and father stayed for two or three more years, he said. His father had an influential job with Firestone, his mother said.

From what Morlu remembered, he compared the family’s life in Liberia to American suburbs.

“Big house, big yards, best of schools,” said Morlu, who attended a Catholic school. “You do remember the stuff you had to go through to get out of there. Not one of my best experiences.”

He declined to elaborate but believed, at age 7, that his life was in danger.

“It was so hard leaving your family … leaving your comfort,” said his mother, Bettie Caine, who mostly raised the four children herself in the U.S. “Most people see when you leave Africa, everything is the best here [in the U.S.]. Honestly it was not that bad for us [in Liberia]. It was a blessing to get away, but I don’t know if we would have survived the war.”

They flew to New York City and landed in Virginia for a few months with a family friend. Then Maryland for a few years, staying in the same apartment complex of a friend.

His impressions of the new country?

“It was my first time seeing apartment buildings, people on top of each other,” Morlu said. “It was a weird experience, sharing a wall with somebody.”

The family moved to Boone, N.C., after his father and two brothers came over. His sister, 11 years younger, was born in the U.S.

Morlu began playing soccer as a high school freshman, but the track and field coach noticed he ran faster than his teammates.

His older brother, Lasana, ran on the 4x400m relay and was unavailable to race one day. So, Morlu was asked to replace him on anchor.

“I didn’t even know what the 4×4 was,” Morlu said. “I get the stick, and you have to run a whole lap? Yeah sure, I’ll run it.”

He said he grabbed the stick in second place, passed the runner in front of him and broke a school record on his split.

“I didn’t look back,” he said.

Morlu continued sprinting through high school and, before he went to run for UNC-Charlotte, realized he had a shot at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

“A friend of mine attended his meet at Boone,” Caine said. “He knew how fast and how good he was. He contacted a Liberian team official. The guy got in touch with me. They decided to use him on the Liberian team.”

Morlu had never tried to gain American citizenship, which avoided any red tape to represent his birth country. It was quite feasible, too, given Liberia’s lack of track and field depth. It had never won an Olympic medal and was eliminated in the first round of the 1996 Olympic 4x100m.

It again fielded a 4x100m relay team with hopes of qualifying for the 2000 Olympics, all of its runners based in the U.S. They gathered in Indianapolis a few months before the Games and recorded a fast enough time to qualify for Sydney.

“He went in as an alternate,” Caine said, “but he was very, very sure that he would make the team, and he became the anchor leg.”

Abraham Morlu marches in the 2000 Olympic Opening Ceremony for Liberia (second from right). (IOC)

Morlu flew to Sydney during his sophomore year at UNC-Charlotte as part of an eight-member Liberian Olympic athlete delegation – all in track and field.

He was the youngest Liberian at 19.

“I was very proud to represent my country,” he said. “I remember in 1996 I saw the [Liberia] guys in the Opening Ceremony [on TV]. One day I definitely want to be the guy there representing my country at the biggest sporting event in the world.”

The Liberian 4x100m relay team was eliminated in the first round at Stadium Australia the day after Marion Jones and Cathy Freeman met in the 200m final.

“It was very tough to take because the third leg, or second exchange, was botched,” said Morlu, who ran anchor. “We went from leading the heat to falling back to sixth. It was between us and [eventual silver medalist] Brazil. We had just pulled away from them on the second leg.”

Morlu enjoyed the experience, though. He made it a goal to meet the sprinters that awed him at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics on TV – Michael Johnson, Donovan Bailey, Frankie Fredericks, Ato Boldon and Linford Christie.

“Frankie Fredericks is one of the coolest ones,” Morlu said. “Every chance he got he said something to me. Most people say you don’t ever meet your heroes, but meeting those guys was the best.”

Morlu returned to UNC-Charlotte, where his track and field coach happened to be 1998 U.S. Olympic bobsledder Robert Olesen.

Morlu, a powerful sprinter, once brought up bobsledding to Olesen, who called him too small for the sport. The topic vanished, and Morlu continued as a professional runner after college.

He never competed at another Summer Olympics, but Morlu spent time as a pupil of now-banned coach Trevor Graham, the former coach of Marion Jones.

“All the drug stuff aside, he was a great coach,” said Morlu, who left Graham to return to Charlotte when the drug scandal hit in the mid-2000s. “I just tried to stay away from that [drug talk]. If they get caught, they live with the consequences. I’m not going to feel sorry for them. … I always trusted Trevor.”

Asked if he was a witness or part of anything illegal with Graham, Morlu laughed.

“I wasn’t that fast,” said Morlu, who owns a 10.22-second personal best in the 100m.

Which is why he sought a new game in 2008.

“I had gotten bored,” Morlu said. “I was feeling a lot of guys I was competing with getting way under the 10-second barrier. 9.8s, not just 9.9s anymore. I started to get a little discouraged.”

But he was proud of his 40-yard dash abilities, so Morlu picked up football for the first time since high school.

He went to Canadian Football League training camps in consecutive summers but never played a down in a game. He also participated in a combine for the proposed All American Football League, where he said former Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods timed his 40.

In the CFL, Morlu caught camp passes from former Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan Randall and lined up as a slot receiver opposite former Georgia wideout Terrence Edwards before he was cut.

“It was cold,” Morlu said of Canada. “As we started doing the team drills together, the one-on-ones, I couldn’t stand it. One time we ran 10 plays up and down the field, I caught every single ball going down the field. That kept me in training camp. A defender was tired of getting burned, and he broke my finger. I went to jump and grab a ball, he grabs my hand, hangs onto it, dislocates my finger. My bone was sticking out the skin.

“Toronto wanted me to come back the next year. Did their training camp and saw their playbook. It made no sense. I had never seen a playbook. I’m just like, ‘I’m going back to track and field.’”

Morlu spent parts of spring and summer 2009 training in Germany during the European track and field season. It was there his then-agent, Andre Thompson, brought up the possibility of bobsled.

Germany is the all-time Olympic medal leader in bobsled. Thomas Prange, a German track and field athlete turned bobsledder, talked Morlu into joining him in a summer 2009 bobsled event.

They won. So Morlu, no longer a Liberian citizen, appealed to the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF), but through miscommunication and/or a lack of funding, he never got through.

A Swiss bobsledder noticed, pestered him for six months, and he eventually suited up in red and white. International bobsled racing rules allow for athletes to compete for non-native countries in non-Olympic years.

Morlu worked his way up to push for the top Swiss driver, Beat Hefti, in the mixed team event at the 2013 World Championships. They finished fifth. The U.S. took notice.

“We were kind of embarrassed, a little bit, to be honest,” USBSF CEO Darrin Steele said. “When we discovered that this is an American athlete competing for Switzerland, we were all looking around. How the heck did this happen? How did we miss this guy?”

Morlu, USBSF and the U.S. Olympic Committee squared away paperwork and he was able to try out for the U.S. over the summer. Morlu earned a spot on Cunningham’s four-man sled and has oddly fit in with a group of guys who share an affinity for cowboy boots and country music.

“We have this ongoing joke because one time [Morlu] said he was ‘country,'” said teammate Dallas Robinson, also a converted sprinter. “And Nick [Cunningham] and I just looked at each other. [Teammate] Johnny [Quinn] is from Texas. I’m from Kentucky, and, well, Nick’s from California, but he rides bulls. So we were like, ‘Oh, you’re country?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I’m so country … ’ and he said something. So we have this ongoing text message where every morning we all wake up, us four, and we send photos of why we are all so country. Abe sent us a photo of oysters two days ago. Like, shelled oysters, and said, ‘This is why I’m country.’ And I was like, ‘What? What does that even mean. I don’t think country people even eat oysters.’ So then I went out to the farm and took a picture of a cow patty and said, ‘This is why I’m country.’”

Courtesy Abraham Morlu

They call Morlu nomadic and a Gypsy. He’s certainly unique. Morlu’s passion is stunt motorcycle riding.

His signature trick, one that he claims nobody else has ever attempted, is front flipping his motorcycle over two other motorcycles, landing on his feet with his bike landing on a kickstand.

What does USBSF think about that activity?

“I didn’t know he was doing the stunt riding until you just told me,” Steele said. “In general, we do discourage the riskier activities.”

Morlu plans to retire after this season and continue stunt bike riding. His 9-to-5 job had been with Bank of America, but he’d rather use his unique set of experiences and return to track and field in a different capacity.

“What I really want to do is coach at the university level,” Morlu said, “put everything I’ve learned over the years to work.”

*There have been Olympians to compete in a Summer Games for East Germany and a Winter Games for Germany, or a Winter for Czechoslovakia and a Summer for the Czech Republic.

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U.S. women’s rugby team qualifies for 2024 Paris Olympics as medal contender

Cheta Emba

The U.S. women’s rugby team qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics by clinching a top-four finish in this season’s World Series.

Since rugby was re-added to the Olympics in 2016, the U.S. men’s and women’s teams finished fifth, sixth, sixth and ninth at the Games.

The U.S. women are having their best season since 2018-19, finishing second or third in all five World Series stops so far and ranking behind only New Zealand and Australia, the winners of the first two Olympic women’s rugby sevens tournaments.

The U.S. also finished fourth at last September’s World Cup.

Three months after the Tokyo Games, Emilie Bydwell was announced as the new U.S. head coach, succeeding Olympic coach Chris Brown.

Soon after, Tokyo Olympic co-captain Abby Gustaitis was cut from the team.

Jaz Gray, who led the team in scoring last season and at the World Cup, missed the last three World Series stops after an injury.

The U.S. men are ranked ninth in this season’s World Series and will likely need to win either a North American Olympic qualifier this summer or a last-chance global qualifier in June 2024 to make it to Paris.

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Oscar Pistorius denied parole, hasn’t served enough time

Oscar Pistorius
File photo

Olympic and Paralympic runner Oscar Pistorius was denied parole Friday and will have to stay in prison for at least another year and four months after it was decided that he had not served the “minimum detention period” required to be released following his murder conviction for killing girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp 10 years ago.

The parole board ruled that Pistorius would only be able to apply again in August 2024, South Africa’s Department of Corrections said in a short, two-paragraph statement. It was released soon after a parole hearing at the Atteridgeville Correctional Centre prison where Pistorius is being held.

The board cited a new clarification on Pistorius’ sentence that was issued by South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal just three days before the hearing, according to the statement. Still, legal experts criticized authorities’ decision to go ahead with the hearing when Pistorius was not eligible.

Reeva Steenkamp’s parents, Barry and June, are “relieved” with the decision to keep Pistorius in prison but are not celebrating it, their lawyer told The Associated Press.

“They can’t celebrate because there are no winners in this situation. They lost a daughter and South Africa lost a hero,” lawyer Tania Koen said, referring to the dramatic fall from grace of Pistorius, once a world-famous and highly-admired athlete.

The decision and reasoning to deny parole was a surprise but there has been legal wrangling over when Pistorius should be eligible for parole because of the series of appeals in his case. He was initially convicted of culpable homicide, a charge comparable to manslaughter, in 2014 but the case went through a number of appeals before Pistorius was finally sentenced to 13 years and five months in prison for murder in 2017.

Serious offenders must serve at least half their sentence to be eligible for parole in South Africa. Pistorius’ lawyers had previously gone to court to argue that he was eligible because he had served the required portion if they also counted periods served in jail from late 2014 following his culpable homicide conviction.

The lawyer handling Pistorius’ parole application did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.

June Steenkamp attended Pistorius’ hearing inside the prison complex to oppose his parole. The parents have said they still do not believe Pistorius’ account of their daughter’s killing and wanted him to stay in jail.

Pistorius, who is now 36, has always claimed he killed Steenkamp, a 29-year-old model and law student, in the pre-dawn hours of Valentine’s Day 2013 after mistaking her for a dangerous intruder in his home. He shot four times with his licensed 9 mm pistol through a closed toilet cubicle door in his bathroom, where Steenkamp was, hitting her multiple times. Pistorius claimed he didn’t realize his girlfriend had got out of bed and gone to the bathroom.

The Steenkamps say they still think he is lying and killed her intentionally after a late-night argument.

Lawyer Koen had struck a more critical tone when addressing reporters outside the prison before the hearing, saying the Steenkamps believed Pistorius could not be considered to be rehabilitated “unless he comes clean” over the killing.

“He’s the killer of their daughter. For them, it’s a life sentence,” Koen said before the hearing.

June Steenkamp had sat grim-faced in the back seat of a car nearby while Koen spoke to reporters outside the prison gates ahead of the hearing. June Steenkamp and Koen were then driven into the prison in a Department of Corrections vehicle. June Steenkamp made her submission to the parole board in a separate room to Pistorius and did not come face-to-face with her daughter’s killer, Koen said.

Barry Steenkamp did not travel for the hearing because of poor health but a family friend read out a statement to the parole board on his behalf, the parents’ lawyer said.

Pistorius was once hailed as an inspirational figure for overcoming the adversity of his disability, before his murder trial and sensational downfall captivated the world.

Pistorius’s lower legs were amputated when he was a baby because of a congenital condition and he walks with prosthetics. He went on to become a double-amputee runner and multiple Paralympic champion who made history by competing against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics, running on specially designed carbon-fiber blades.

Pistorius’ conviction eventually led to him being sent to the Kgosi Mampuru II maximum security prison, one of South Africa’s most notorious. He was moved to the Atteridgeville prison in 2016 because that facility is better suited to disabled prisoners.

There have only been glimpses of his life in prison, with reports claiming he had at one point grown a beard, gained weight and taken up smoking and was unrecognizable from the elite athlete he once was.

He has spent much of his time working in an area of the prison grounds where vegetables are grown, sometimes driving a tractor, and has reportedly been running bible classes for other inmates.

Pistorius’ father, Henke Pistorius, told the Pretoria News newspaper before the hearing that his family hoped he would be home soon.

“Deep down, we believe he will be home soon,” Henke Pistorius said, “but until the parole board has spoken the word, I don’t want to get my hopes up.”

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