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Ethiopian runner who protested in Rio reunites with family

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The Ethiopian marathoner crouched down low in the hallway at the Miami airport as he carried a bouquet of red roses.

Feyisa Lilesa’s daughter spotted him first and ran in for a hug. Then, his young son and lastly his wife.

On Valentine’s Day, the Olympic silver medalist who became an international figure when he crossed his wrists in protest at the finish line in Rio de Janeiro finally reunited with his family. He was a little late (traffic), but what’s a few extra minutes when he’s already waited six long months to see them.

As he made his way out of the airport, his son perched on his shoulders and his daughter rode on the luggage, carrying the flowers he brought as a gift.

“The biggest gift is us seeing each other again – and me seeing them again,” Lilesa said through a translator in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s all been very tough.”

The 27-year-old eventually settled in Flagstaff, Arizona, after making an anti-government gesture during the Olympic marathon that drew global attention to the deadly protests in his home region of Oromia. He never returned home after Brazil out of fear of what might happen to him. He’s constantly been worrying about the family he left behind in Ethiopia. His nearly 6-year-old daughter, Soko, and 3 +-year-old son, Sora, always asked when they will see him again.

Finally, he was able to answer.

Lilesa remains in the U.S. on a special skills visa. His family arrived on visas as well, secured through his attorney.

The plan now is this: A few days of beach time and then it’s off to Flagstaff where the family will settle into everyday life in their rental house.

One weight off his mind.

Still, he can’t forget what his country is going through, with the Oromia region experiencing anti-government protests over recent months. Violent anti-government protests spread to other parts of Ethiopia and led to a state of emergency that was declared in October.

Since his gesture, many have described Lilesa as a national hero.

“My mind is pretty much occupied by what is happening back home,” Lilesa said. “Whether I’m running or I’m sleeping or I’m laying back, my family and what is happening in Ethiopia – and what is happening to my people – that’s constantly on my mind.”

Most days since his arrival in America have been spent training. It was his best cure for loneliness.

“I come from a very big family, and I’ve never lived alone,” Lilesa said. “I’ve always been surrounded by people I know. This has been the complete opposite. Here, I’m removed from all of that.”

Still, he would protest all over again.

“I think me taking the risk and putting family in that position and putting them potentially in harm’s way, it was a good lesson for a lot of people that you need to sacrifice in order for you to win some concessions and change your situation,” Lilesa said. “In that sense, it inspires people to fight for their rights and resist the government in Ethiopia. It also led to greater awareness about the situation in Ethiopia.

“Now, you see more coverage of the human rights violations. I speak with people wherever I go. Even outside the media limelight, people are interested in knowing. They heard the story because of my protest.”

Someday, he would like to go back to Ethiopia.

“But as long as this current government is in power, I don’t have hope of going back to Ethiopia,” he explained. “I do know change is inevitable.”

He also wants to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Whether that’s wearing the colors of Ethiopia, he doesn’t know.

“I’m not too hopeful the system will be changed in the next three years and I will be in a position to run for Ethiopia. We will have to wait and see,” said Lilesa, who plans to run in the London Marathon in two months.

For now, Lilesa’s priority is getting his family settled.

“I knew that we would meet somehow, but I didn’t expect it would happen under these circumstances over here,” Lilesa said. “When I think about my family, it takes me back to why I did this and why I’m here. I missed my family, but this was a big bother to me – the plight of my people.”

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Gregorio Paltrinieri swims second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history

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Olympic champion Gregorio Paltrinieri swam the second-fastest 1500m freestyle in history, clocking 14:33.10 in his native Italy on Thursday.

Paltrinieri, 25, missed Chinese Sun Yang‘s world record from the 2012 Olympics by 2.08 seconds.

The Italian now owns the second- and third-fastest times in history, including his 14:34.10 from the 2016 European Championships, also held at the 2012 Olympic pool in London.

Paltrinieri is a versatile distance swimmer. At last year’s world championships, he finished sixth in the open-water 10km to qualify for the Olympics, then won the 800m free in the pool in a European record time and finished with 1500m bronze, just missing a third straight world title in that event.

German Florian Wellbrock won the 1500m in 14:36.54 at worlds, with Paltrinieri finishing 2.21 seconds back.

Sun, 28, was in February banned eight years stemming from destroying a drug-test sample with a hammer in September 2018. Sun, who focused more on the 200m and 400m frees in recent years, did not race the 1500m at the 2017 or 2019 Worlds.

Top-level swim meets in the U.S. are scheduled to resume in November with the Tyr Pro Series.

MORE: Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15

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Bianca Andreescu to miss U.S. Open

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Bianca Andreescu withdrew from the U.S. Open, citing “unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic” compromising her ability to prepare to defend her Grand Slam title.

“I have taken this step in order to focus on my match fitness and ensure that I return ready to play at my highest level,” Andreescu, a 20-year-old Canadian, posted on social media. “The US Open victory last year has been the high point of my career thus far and I will miss not being there. However, I realize that the unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic, have compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”

Andreescu’s absence means the U.S. Open, the first Grand Slam tournament since tennis resumed amid the coronavirus pandemic, will be without both 2019 male and female singles champions.

Rafael Nadal previously announced he would not defend his title, saying he would rather not travel given the global situation. Roger Federer is also out after knee surgery. Women’s No. 1 Ash Barty didn’t enter, either, citing travel concerns.

Last year, Andreescu made her U.S. Open title run as the 15th seed, sweeping Serena Williams in the final. Ranked 208th a year earlier, she became the first player born in the 2000s to win a Slam and the first teen Slam winner since Maria Sharapova at the 2006 U.S. Open.

Andreescu then missed the Australian Open in January due to rehab from a knee injury that forced her to retire during a match at the WTA Finals on Oct. 30. She also missed the French Open and Wimbledon in 2019 following a rotator cuff tear.

MORE: Serena Williams, reclusive amid pandemic, returns to tennis competition

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