Whoa, Nellie! Just wait a Montana easy minute.
By the time folks read what’s below, Montana’s Big Sky State Games will have come and gone. Another one, this the 28th version, headed down memory lane.
We’ve had so many now since the first in 1986, when Billings’ own, marathoner Julie Ann Brown, lit the inaugural flame at Daylis Stadium. Channel 8 showed old clips of the then 31-year-old, two years off her 36th place finish in the first women’s Olympic marathon in Los Angeles. Boy, if you caught it, she looked pretty darn good too.
It’s fortunate the news people have such recordings, because time and lives move on quickly. We forget. Past Games highlights get foggy. When was that Olympic swimmer Rowdy Gaines here? Gosh, has it been that long, a half-dozen years now. Seems like last year. And Laurel’s Patrick Casey coming somewhat close to breaking four minutes in the Montana Mile?
So, before we move on and spend the second half of summer entertaining ourselves with the mediocre-at-home Billings Mustangs, Thursdays’ free St. John’s summer concerts or upcoming Labor Day events, let’s lock in and remember this year’s Games.
And it has to begin with Meb Keflezighi. It’s much easier to spell than pronounce the last name and typing it is no simple task. At first glance, the 38-year-old seemed as out of place in the Magic City as an African hyena among our prairie antelopes.
But the Olympic marathon silver medalist was a big hit with Montanans, evidenced during last Friday’s running clinic and Opening Ceremonies. The well-spoken, tiny 125-pounder connected with our state’s athletes and fans alike because he’s humble and clearly worked hard for all he’s gained in life. And the fellow was funny.
Keflezighi orated about being born in poverty-ridden Eritrea, once part of Ethiopia in east Africa. During a brutal civil war, his father feared for his life and fled solo by foot, past “lions, hyenas, snakes and spiders” and pursuing soldiers, 225 miles into neighboring Sudan, before finding his way to Italy.
There, the father worked and later borrowed $6,000 from his employer to bring his family to Italy before they immigrated to Southern California in 1987 when Meb was 12.
Keflezighi said he played soccer, but in seventh grade, a P.E. teacher told his class those who ran a mile in under six minutes and 15 seconds would receive an A grade. With the father pushing the new American family to excel in school, the youngest ran 5:20 to get the top grade, his first time ever running four laps. A short while later he ran a 5:10 mile.
A local high school coach caught wind of the school boy phenom and told him he was going to be an Olympian one day. More importantly, Keflezighi gave up soccer and fell in love with distance running.
But there are literally tens of thousands aspiring young American tracksters dreaming of running in the Olympics one day. And with his tough start in life, Keflezighi probably had a better chance at birth of being the first man to land on planet Uranus than being the one in the world’s 5 billion to place second in the 2004 Athens Games men’s marathon. The high school coach was more than right.
Keflezighi told the Billings audiences there was the luck of his father surviving that near-death journey, searching for food and water to slip alone into a foreign country. But, from there, in America the family and Keflezighi worked hard. He graduated from UCLA with a degree in communications and was an All-American track man those four years.
His 10 siblings have all graduated from U.S. colleges. His message to young athletes last Friday was to do the same, seize the great opportunities this nation provides and go for your goal-set dreams.
His lighter side appeared when asked at press conference earlier in the day what his daily regimen was as a world class athlete.
He replied with a big smile, “I sleep all day and then train.”
But his message wasn’t fluffy lip service. Those in the Daylis Stadium stands last Friday night took notice as Keflezighi sat in the 90-degree sun, sometimes in a row of seats by himself, for more than an hour watching hundreds of parading athletes walk across the stage. No last-minute entrance to give a chest-puffing speech, light a flame and quickly exit. After speaking to the crowd, he later jumped alongside the track, with the worn-out first lane, as the women and men Montana Mile races took place, loudly cheering individual milers as they went by.
It was interesting to note that Keflezighi clapped and yelled hardest when 37-year-old Jesse Zentz ran his final lap, in dead last place, some 30 yards behind the nearest competitor. That must have brought some invigorating joy to Zentz, the oldest miler by a long shot, who won the event way back in 1996.
Keflezighi, who also placed fourth in the marathon in the 2012 London Olympics and may give it a shot again in Rio De Janeiro in 2016, knows what it means to be way, way behind.
In a similar gesture, young Christina Aragon, of the getting-to-be legendary Aragon clan, rocket bolted in the final 200 yards to smoke four other milers to win the women’s event in just over five minutes.
She warmly shook hands with the second, third and fourth finishers as they came in. But when last placer Jocelyn Elorriaga-Medina finally crossed the finish line, Aragon gave her a nice big “atta girl” bear hug.
The two could be close, who knows. But chances are, like Keflezighi, someone’s brought up young Christina the right way, besides being an exceptional athlete. And we noticed.
Who could not notice 12-year-old Anthony Cox? The Great Falls youngster attends the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind.
He came on stage and at first seemed shy and tentative. Understandably so. But then Cox’s pre-teen, crystal-clear voice confidently boomed across Wendy’s Field sending emotional bolts into the crowd as he sang our country’s anthem. We couldn’t stop clapping. Mayor Tom Hanel called Anthony this year’s top athlete.
Meb, Christina and young Anthony. Some names to remember in the 2013 Big Sky State Games.