Abraham Morlu

The curious case of U.S. bobsledder 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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Novak Djokovic rolls at French Open; top women escape

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Novak Djokovic began what could be a march to his 18th Grand Slam title, sweeping Swede Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in the French Open first round on Tuesday.

The top seed Djokovic lost just seven points in the first set. He gets Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in the second round in a half of the draw that includes no other man with French Open semifinal experience.

Djokovic had plenty going for him into Roland Garros, seeking to repeat his 2016 run to the title. The chilly weather is similar to four years ago.

“I don’t like usually comparing the years,” he said. “But I think [the conditions are] quite suitable to my style of the game.”

As is Djokovic’s form. His only loss in 2020 was when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open for hitting a ball in anger that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Djokovic got a break with the draw when No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem was put in No. 2 Rafael Nadal‘s half. The Serbian also won his clay-court tune-up event in Rome, where he received warnings in back-to-back matches for breaking a racket and uttering an obscenity.

“I don’t think that [the linesperson incident] will have any significant negative impact on how I feel on the tennis court,” Djokovic said before Roland Garros. “I mean, I won the tournament in Rome just a week later after what happened in New York.

“I really want to be my best version as a player, as a human being on the court, and win a tennis match. Because of the care that I have for that, I sometimes express my emotions in good way or maybe less good way.”

If Djokovic can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two Sundays from now, he will move within two of Roger Federer‘s career Slams record. Also notable: He would keep Nadal from tying Federer’s record and head into the Australian Open in January, his signature Slam, with a chance to match Nadal at 19.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Tuesday, No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Sofia Kenin each needed three sets to reach the second round.

The Czech Pliskova rallied past Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Pliskova, the highest-ranked player without a major title, next gets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

“Let’s not talk about my level [of play],” Pliskova said. “I think there is big room for improvement.”

Kenin, the American who won the Australian Open in February, outlasted Russian Liudmila Samsonova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“It doesn’t matter how you win — ugly, pretty, doesn’t matter,” Kenin said on Tennis Channel.

She gets Romanian Ana Bogdan in the second round. Only one other seed — No. 14 Elena Rybakina — is left in Kenin’s section en route to a possible quarterfinal.

American Jen Brady, who made a breakthrough run to the U.S. Open semifinals, was beaten by Danish qualifier Clara Tauson  6-4, 3-6, 9-7.

Sam Querrey nearly made it eight American men into the second round, serving for the match in the third set. But he succumbed to 13th-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. It’s still the best first-round showing for U.S. men since nine advanced in 1996.

The second round begins Wednesday, highlighted by Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

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U.S. men off to best French Open start in 24 years

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The last time U.S. men started this well at the French Open, Sebastian Korda wasn’t alive and his dad had yet to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Eight American men are into the second round at Roland Garros, the largest contingent in the last 64 since 1996. It could have been nine, had Sam Querrey served out the match in the third set against 13th seed Andrey Rublev of Russia.

Still, the U.S. has more men in the second round than any other nation. Astonishing, given U.S. men went a collective 1-9 at the 2019 French Open.

Back in 1996, nine American men won first-round matches. That group included Pete SamprasAndre AgassiJim Courier and Michael Chang (in Sampras’ deepest run in Paris, to the semifinals).

Clay has long been kryptonite for this generation of Americans — the last U.S. man to make a Roland Garros quarterfinal was Agassi in 2003.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

This group includes veterans like Jack Sock, who swept countryman Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 on Monday. Sock, 28, was once ranked eighth in the world.

He then dropped out of the rankings entirely, missing time due to injury and going 10 months between tour-level match wins. He’s now at No. 310 and preparing to play No. 3 Dominic Thiem in the second round.

“A pretty horrific two years in a row,” Sock said. “I’m not opposed to silencing some haters after the last couple years I’ve gone through. I’ve read and seen enough of it, heard enough of it. I’m kind of ready to reestablish myself out there, let people know that I’m back.”

Then there’s 35-year-old John Isner, the big server who swept a French wild card in round one. Isner, the highest seeded U.S. man at No. 21, has posted some decent Roland Garros results, reaching the fourth round three times.

There are new faces, too. Taylor Fritz is seeded 27, aged 22 and in an open section of the draw to make his first Grand Slam fourth round.

On Sunday, 20-year-old Korda became the youngest U.S. man to win a French Open main-draw match since an 18-year-old Andy Roddick beat Chang in 2001.

He is the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda and brother of the world’s second- and 22nd-ranked female golfers (Nelly and Jessica).

So far, Sebastian’s biggest feats: winning the 2018 Australian Open junior title and, in his only golf tournament, beating both of his sisters when he was 11. It was around that age that he gave up ice hockey and focused solely on tennis.

Korda was hooked after watching a Czech whom his dad coached, Radek Stepanek, at the U.S. Open in 2009.

“He played Djokovic on [Arthur] Ashe [Stadium] like at 10:30 at night,” Korda, nicknamed Sebi, said on Tennis Channel. “Completely packed. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I went home, and I was like, this is exactly what I want to do.”

An American man is already guaranteed to make the third round in Paris. Korda faces Isner on Thursday.

“I grew up on the clay,” Korda said, “so I know how to play on it a little bit.”

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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