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Meb Keflezighi set for final marathon where it all began

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NEW YORK (AP) — He’ll wear the familiar “MEB” bib one final time at the New York City Marathon.

Meb Keflezighi, the face of American long-distance running, wraps up his marathon career where it began in 2002 on the multicultural streets of New York. An immigrant of war-torn Eritrea who became a U.S. citizen in 1998, he’ll be cheered by thousands of spectators and some 70 relatives and friends.

He vowed to never run the grueling 26.2 miles again after going out fast and hitting the wall at mile 21 in his first NYC Marathon. But 26 marathons later, he’s retiring at age 42 after Sunday’s race, capping a career as the only person to win an Olympic medal and New York and Boston titles.

“It’s very emotional coming back,” Keflezighi said. “I’m excited, but at the same time it’s bittersweet. It will be a sigh of relief when I get to the finish line.”

In 2009, Keflezighi became the first American male runner since Alberto Salazar in 1982 to win the NYC marathon.

His most dramatic win came at the 2014 Boston Marathon, crossing the finish line with fists pumps and the names of three victims of the bombings and a slain police officer written on his bib.

As a spectator in 2013, he stood in Copley Plaza to greet finishers and left only a short time before the bomb attack injured hundreds.

He kissed the pavement after a Boston Strong and personal-best time of 2 hours, 8 minutes, 37 seconds.

Keflezighi also won silver at the 2004 Athens Olympics, the first U.S. man since Frank Shorter in 1976 to win a marathon medal.

“Meb is the premier American distance runner of this generation,” said George Hirsch, who with Fred Lebow started the NYC Marathon in 1976 to celebrate the bicentennial. “We have to really go back a long way to Frank and Bill [Rodgers] and Joanie [Benoit Samuelson] and Alberto.

“That was a golden age of American distance running when we literally had Olympic champions in the marathon and runners ranked No. 1 in the world.”

Keflezighi says his parents and siblings could have stayed in Italy after escaping East Africa. But they traveled to the United States, settling in San Diego.

Keflezighi arrived at 12 in 1987, trading a likely future as a child soldier in his native country for good grades, a track scholarship at UCLA and transformation from miler to Olympic marathoner.

His athletic journey began when junior high school gym teacher Dick Lord suggested students run a mile around the playground, and young Meb gave an eye-opening performance.

“People give you confidence,” he said, mentioning college coach Don Larsen. “They kind of see something that you didn’t see. At end of the day, I squeezed everything there is to squeeze out of it.”

In his NYC Marathon debut 15 years ago, Keflezighi thought he could win and made a move on First Avenue in 39-degree weather.

“I told my coach it’s my first and last marathon,” he said. “I got my Ph.D. that day, what to do and what not to do.”

His parents will be in New York again Sunday. He posted two photos on Twitter, showing his parents and several siblings upon their arrival in the U.S. in 1987 and a more recent photo. The caption reads, “Where did your family immigrate from?”

“This country is built on immigrants, unless you’re Native American,” Keflezighi said. “Whether it was 30 years ago like myself or 50 years ago or 100 years ago or someone who just came here last week.”

His father cleaned floors, drove a taxi and helped them learn English while his mother raised 10 children.

“That’s why my parents got here, by hard work and perseverance. We could have been in Italy forever, it was peace and tranquility,” he said. “But the land of opportunity lies in the United States.

“All my brothers and sisters graduated from medical school, engineering, MBA or law. All those things because the great United States gave us opportunities. I maxed out my potential in terms of running. But all my siblings also reached great things to be a positive contributor to society.”

He says he’ll spend more time with his wife, Yordanos, and three young daughters, run some half-marathons, coach and work with his MEB Foundation. It stands for “Maintaining Excellent Balance” and promotes healthy living and motivation for youth.

NYC Marathon officials say they’ll retire the “MEB” bib, the last time a pro athlete wears a first name. Always an ambassador of the sport, Keflezighi plans to return to the finish line Sunday and greet the last stragglers in the dark at Central Park.

“They’re going to have tears in their eyes when he drops a medal around their necks,” Hirsch said.

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2021 Burton U.S. Open snowboarding event canceled

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The Burton U.S. Open, snowboarding’s most storied event, canceled its 2021 competition due to uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“The truth is, we just can’t be sure it will be safe from a public health standpoint for us to host the event in 2021,” a statement read.

The U.S. Open, held since 1982, is usually around the first weekend in March, making it the season-ending event for many riders. Halfpipe champions include Shaun WhiteChloe KimKelly Clark and Ross Powers, who also earned Olympic gold medals.

Other 2020-21 winter sports events affected by the coronavirus pandemic include figure skating’s Junior Grand Prix. The first two stops of that eight-event series, scheduled for late August and early September in Canada and Slovakia, have been canceled.

The Italian Winter Sports Federation, which is due to put on the February 2021 World Alpine Skiing Championships in Cortina d’Ampezzo, made a formal request on Monday to postpone the event until March 2022, one month after the next Winter Olympics in Beijing. The International Ski Federation (FIS) council will decide July 1.

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Kara Eaker eschews fear, back on balance beam to resume Olympic quest

Kara Eaker
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Kara Eaker hasn’t qualified for an Olympics yet, but she is already part of a historic club of U.S. gymnasts. The list goes, most recently, Eaker, Simone BilesKyla RossAly RaismanNastia LiukinShawn JohnsonShannon Miller and Dominique Dawes.

Those are the women who qualified for back-to-back balance beam finals at the sport’s highest level: Olympics or world championships. For Eaker (pronounced like acre), they came in her first two years as a senior gymnast in 2018 and 2019 (Biles and Johnson are the only other U.S. women to do that in the last 25 years.)

This was supposed to be Eaker’s Olympic year, but the coronavirus pandemic postponed the Games to 2021, after her Missouri high school graduation. It also kept her out of the gym for nearly two months until the GAGE Center reopened last week in Blue Springs, near Kansas City.

It was the longest Eaker had been off a regulation beam (and out of the gym) since she could remember. She began competing at age 5.

Eaker’s mom, Katherine, said her daughter never feared the four-inch-wide beam, but Eaker said the thought of returning last week “was definitely kind of scary at first.” That is, until one of her coaches eased her back with basics and work on a floor beam, one that’s not raised as high as the four feet you see in competition.

“By the time we were ready, and she was comfortable putting us back up there, it wasn’t scary,” Eaker said. “It felt normal.”

Eaker, adopted from a Chinese orphanage around age 1 in 2003 (her parents’ travel then delayed by SARS), excels on the senior elite stage with a level of normalcy.

Which is not entirely normal in this sport. She lives with her family, 10 minutes from her world-class gym. She still attends regular high school. She’s committed to continue gymnastics at the University of Utah after the Tokyo Olympics.

“I started out in dance, actually,” said Eaker, whose hobbies include robotics and calligraphy. “A little, little girl with the stuffed animal, twirling around in the dance room. And then we had our little recital and I just wasn’t … I couldn’t do the standing in front of an audience kind of thing.”

Her mom believes it was around Christmas. Eaker was 3 or 4.

“She just froze like a deer in the headlights, and all the other girls froze, too, because they were used to following her,” Katherine said. “Then she tried gymnastics. We had to drag her out [of the gym]. From then on, it was always, she’s first one in, last one out. Still is.”

The family, including Eaker’s father, Mark, retired Navy and a flight engineer, and younger sister, Sara, moved three times within Missouri in part to get Kara closer to GAGE to pursue what would eventually become an Olympic dream.

Gymnastics meets were appointment TV before Eaker entered kindergarten. She watched the Beijing Olympics, or perhaps an even earlier meet, while dancing around the living room in a leotard. Sometimes she mimicked the gold medalists by doing back bends. She continued to watch Beijing highlights, with Liukin and Johnson, on replay on YouTube.

Back at the gym, Eaker developed with the help of her coaches, plus future University of Nebraska gymnast Catelyn Orel, her “gym mom” under the GAGE program to pair older and younger athletes. Orel was a state champion on beam. Eaker proved a natural, too.

“A lot of the girls would get up there and have trouble balancing, but she just always seemed to do it just like she was on the floor,” her mom said. “She’s never really had a fear. Some girls get up there and are nervous. She just never seemed to be that way.”

In 2018, Eaker was 15, old enough to start competing on the senior level with the likes of Biles. Exactly 10 years after she would have watched Johnson win the Beijing Olympic beam title, Eaker finished second on beam at nationals behind Biles. She was invited to the world championships team selection camp, where she had the top beam score and placed sixth in the all-around. Six gymnasts would be chosen by a committee to travel to the world championships.

Eaker didn’t expect to make the team. In a large meeting with coaches and staff, the roster was announced. Eaker made it as the youngest member.

“It was a goal, but there were so many other girls and it was my first year as a senior,” she said. “I was very happy and surprised to make that team.”

Eaker again won beam at the 2019 World Championships selection camp. If Eaker endured adversity those first two years, it came at worlds.

In 2018, she fell on her mount in the beam final. The rest of her routine was medal-worthy gymnastics. She waited an eternal three minutes for her score, which placed her sixth. Eaker’s routine from the team final earlier that week would have earned silver.

In 2019, Eaker again qualified for the eight-woman beam final. The U.S. federation submitted an inquiry on her qualifying score, contesting a lower start value given to her. That backfired. Judges lowered Eaker’s score even more upon review, which took her out of the final. However, another gymnast who had qualified later withdrew due to injury. Eaker was back in the final, where she placed fourth.

She was asked afterward what she would take away from the meet.

“Just the experience of it all,” she said, composed. “How it makes me feel. How to use that [in the future].”

In 2021, Eaker will have to prove to a selection committee that she can be reliable on all four apparatuses. The Olympic team event size is four — with three gymnasts going per apparatus in the Olympic final — down from five in 2016, putting a greater emphasis on the all-around. Eaker could also be a candidate for one separate spot in individual events only.

“I definitely want to be seen as a great beam worker, but I also need to be a great all-arounder because they’re going to be looking at not just your one event,” said Eaker, who was third in the all-around at the 2019 Worlds selection camp. “You have to be able to benefit the team with your other events, even if they aren’t as strong as your [best] one.”

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