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Olympians Use Sports To Make A Difference

By Amy Rosewater | May 20, 2013, 2:25 p.m. (ET)

Michelle Kwan (center) and Mebrahtom Keflezighi (right) pose with
James Ihedigb of the Baltimore Ravens.

WASHINGTON -- Remi Duyile is a Nigerian-American who started her career as a bank teller and retired as a vice president of a major bank. Now she is a senior special assistant to the governor of Ondo State back in Nigeria.

For those accomplishments, you would think her three children, ages 17, 21 and 23, would be especially proud.

But Duyile said it wasn’t until Tuesday that she had a shot at getting her children’s attention.

“I got to meet Michelle Kwan and take my picture with her and I met the guy who played in the Super Bowl (James Ihedigbo of the Baltimore Ravens),” Duyile said, holding out a program. “See, I even got them to sign for me as proof.

“I think now my kids will tell me, ‘You are all right. I want to hang out with you.’”

That indeed is the power of sports.

For the first time since the U.S. Department of State has held a Global Diaspora Forum in Washington, D.C., sports were a part of the overall discussion. Based on the response from the panel today, which featured Kwan, Ihedigbo and U.S. Olympic marathoner Meb Keflezighi, there’s a good chance sports will remain on the docket.

Organizers of the two-day event, which was held Monday and Tuesday, said they were amazed by the response of the crowd after the sports panel. Many of the invited guests, who came from such far-away places as Cameroon and Somalia, swarmed the athletes after their hour-long discussion. There were other speakers who had backgrounds in economics, energy and engineering, but Kwan, Ihedigbo and Keflezighi were the stars.

The goal of the forum was to provide a platform for prominent American figures to share their stories of diaspora, which is the mass migration of a group of people from the homeland, and to share suggestions to help others to connect with the countries of their heritage. According to the State Department, representatives from 35 states and more than 100 countries attended the forum, which attracted nearly 600 registrants.

Kwan, a two-time Olympic medalist and five-time world champion figure skater, shared her stories growing up as a Chinese American. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong. Keflezighi, a three-time Olympian, talked about his youth in Eritrea and becoming a star marathoner in the United States. And Ihedigbo, born in Massachusetts to Nigerian immigrants, told about the HOPE Africa Foundation, which he founded in 2008 to support education efforts in Africa.

“I knew at a very young age that my parents sacrificed a lot to allow me to skate,” Kwan told the audience. “I remember my dad being adamant about giving his kids opportunities.”

Kwan’s parents and grandparents worked long hours at a Chinese restaurant in Southern California to keep Michelle and her sister, Karen, skating as well as to help her brother, Ron, play hockey. At one point, when Kwan was 11 and a junior-level skater, her dad gave her a pair of customized skates, her first pair of such expensive boots. Later she noticed that another girl’s name was scratched out from the bottom of the boot.

It was then that Kwan realized how difficult it was for her parents to keep her in skating but what lengths they would go to support her.

“For so long, everything was so focused on me,” Kwan said. “Now I’ve had time to do things for others.”

Kwan, 32 and recently married, is seven years removed from her competitive skating career. Today she is a senior advisor for public diplomacy and public affairs for the Department of State. She also serves on the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition and is on the Board of Directors of Special Olympics International.

“As a skater you feel so selfish,” she said. “Now I’m finding ways to make a difference.”

Keflezighi, who just this past weekend ran his first race (a 10K in New York) since finishing fourth at the London 2012 Olympic Games, echoed those sentiments. (Read more about Keflezighi’s running career here.) 

Mebrahtom Keflezighi holds the U.S. flag aloft as he approaches the
finish line in the men's marathon at the London 2012 Olympic Games
on Aug. 12, 2012.

Born in the war-torn east African nation of Eritrea, Keflezighi and his family fled to Italy and later to the United States. His father would wake him up at 4:30 in the morning to study English. Keflezighi and his 10 siblings lived in a three-bedroom apartment in San Diego and Keflezighi is proud to say that all of his siblings have gone on to have successful careers.

Keflezighi ran his first marathon in 2002, but he was so disappointed with his ninth-place finish that he vowed he would never compete in the grueling 26.2-mile event again.

But two weeks later, he was in Eritrea and he saw people walking three miles to get water from a well.

“It’s so hard to comprehend what it’s like over there,” said Keflezighi, who was naturalized as an American citizen in 1998. “Here, you have a switch, you turn it on and you get light. You turn on a faucet and you get water.

“There, you have to get the water and then you have to make a fire to boil the water and you have to go into the woods so you can build a fire. I would see women carrying five gallons of water on their backs. And it’s not like the roads are flat.

“I realized that I had things easy here. I was going through what I call ‘temporary discomfort.’”

Two years later, in Athens, Keflezighi earned a silver medal in the marathon. It marked the first time an American man captured an Olympic medal in the men’s marathon since 1976, when Frank Shorter took the silver in Montreal. Keflezighi won the New York City Marathon in 2009, becoming the first American to win that race since 1982, and in London last summer, he was the highest-finishing American in the men’s race, placing fourth.

The Olympic marathon in London was a race he almost didn’t finish.

“I was in such pain starting at about six-and-half miles,” he said. “It crossed my mind to drop out, but racing for my country motivated me and I knew my daughters were watching me and I had to do my best for them. I always told them to do their best, so if I didn’t reach the finish line what lesson was I telling them?

“So yes, it crossed my mind to drop out, but I’m so glad I didn’t.”

Keflezighi, 38, is unsure about his racing future, although he plans to run the New York City Marathon in November. He has also penciled in Boston for next year and said he is on the fence about the next Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

But he knows his future will combine his success as a runner with efforts to help others around the globe. And much of his work will be with the MEB Foundation to work with youth in education, health and fitness.

“It’s time to give back,” Keflezighi said. “It’s like that quote from (President John F. Kennedy): Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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Mebrahtom Keflezighi