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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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Jessie Diggins, inspired by Body Issue, shares eating disorder battle

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Jessie Diggins hopes to open a conversation about body image after appearing in ESPN the Magazine‘s “Body Issue.” The Olympic gold medalist detailed her own experience with an eating disorder as a teenager in what she called “the most important blog I’ll ever write.”

“When I was 18-19 years old, I had everything in the world going for me, but I struggled with confidence and didn’t love myself,” Diggins, now 26, wrote on her website. “I suffered from an eating disorder, and eventually sought help at a treatment center, checking in for a summer program that saved my life. So when I was approached about the ESPN issue, I thought “is this REALLY something I want to do? Will it bring back old memories? Will I be ok with everyone seeing my body exactly as it is?”

Diggins is remembered for winning the first U.S. Olympic cross-country skiing title with Kikkan Randall in PyeongChang (Here comes Diggins!). In the cross-country world, she’s also reputed for her bubbly presence, spreading glitter across her face and sharing it with fellow skiers before races.

She wants to be associated with much more.

“I want to be known not for going through an eating disorder, but for helping other women and men speak up when they need help and not feel judged for needing a friend to talk it through with,” Diggins wrote. “Statistically speaking, at least 6% of you reading this right now are struggling with disordered eating in some way. So to those of you for whom it feels like the end of the world, I can say this: it can, and it does, get better. I know, because I lived it. It will take more courage than most anything else in your life, but you can get better. And it’s worth it.”

Years before becoming a medal-winning athlete, Diggins checked into The Emily Program, a national leader for eating disorder treatment.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but also the most important,” she wrote. “Because it saved my life, in every way that a life can be saved. I learned that I was struggling with this so much because I needed an outlet for stress, and that it was ok to feel a range of emotions – that I could survive feeling pressured, stressed, unhappy, sad, or angry as well as feeling happy-go-lucky.”

Diggins called posing for the Body Issue “a full-circle moment.” ESPN says the Body Issue celebrates every shape and size of athletes in artful fashion.

“[It’s] a chance for me to use a large stage to waltz right up to the microphone and share a message that I think is extremely important, and long overdue,” Diggins wrote. “We need to open up the conversation about body image, self confidence, and disordered eating. It should not be a shameful thing, or a taboo topic. It’s more prevalent than people think, and perhaps making help easier to find and less difficult to ask for could save some lives.”

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Darya Domracheva, triple Olympic gold medalist in Sochi, retires

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Darya Domracheva, a triple 2014 Olympic gold medalist and Belarus’ most decorated Olympian, has retired from biathlon at age 31.

Domracheva is leaving the sport because she could not continue in biathlon while raising daughter Xenia with husband Ole Einar Bjørndalen, the 13-time Olympic medalist biathlete for Norway.

“All the time after the season, I was trying to find a compromise which would allow me to raise a child and combine with a professional career at the same time,” Domracheva said, according to the International Biathlon Union (IBU). “Unfortunately I did not find an optimal solution which would allow me to combine those two important life parts. This decision is well weighted and very tough, but I finish my sports career.”

Domracheva was one of the biggest stars of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games as the only athlete to claim three individual gold medals, four years after being put on a Belarus postage stamp for earning an individual bronze. Domracheva could have competed for Russia, having been born in Minsk but raised in the remote western Siberia oil boom town of Nyagan, the birthplace of Maria Sharapova.

She became Belarus’ first female Olympic champion, saying she was “the hope of” Belarus, then was awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor, “Hero of Belarus.”

After winning her only World Cup overall title in 2015, Domracheva missed the 2015-16 campaign with glandular fever, then in April 2016 announced she and Bjørndalen were in a relationship and having a child.

Domracheva returned to take a silver medal at the 2017 World Championships, then entered PyeongChang ranked fifth in the world. Domracheva struggled early in PyeongChang with finishes of ninth, 37th and 27th before earning mass start silver and relay gold.

Her six career Olympic medals are two more than anybody else from Belarus, and her four golds are double anybody else’s total from her country.

Belarus has only competed independently since the 1994 Lillehammer Games, having previously been part of the Soviet Union. Its top athletes who competed under other flags included gymnasts Olga Korbut (six medals, four golds for the Soviets) and Vitaly Scherbo (six golds in 1992 for the Unified Team; four bronzes in 1996 for Belarus).

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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