Concord High grad to run in Olympic marathon
The International Olympic Committee has granted Marial's request to enter the Olympics as an unattached athlete, so he can compete in the Olympic marathon. IOC rules prohibited him from representing the United States because he is not a citizen. His homeland, the year-old Republic of South Sudan, has not yet qualified to field an Olympic team.
A Sudanese refugee, he was a man without a team, but not a man without a country.
“In my heart, I will be standing in the Olympics and holding the South Sudan flag in my heart,” Marial said. “I may be independent, but inside my heart, these are the people I am running for.”
Getting to the Olympics was, like much of Marial's life, an uphill struggle that had moments in which it looked like his dream would never become a reality.
“It hasn't sunk in yet, when you work for something like that and you get that kind of spirit behind you, it's just amazing,” he said. “It was a good feeling.”
After graduating from Concord High School, he attended Iowa State University, but without the academic background of most of his classmates. In the tradition of a long-distance runner, however, challenge yielded to perseverance
“When we were gone for trips, he studied nonstop, and he put 100 percent into running and 100 percent into the academic side of things,'' said Travis Hartke, an assistant track coach at Iowa State.
Marial is a Sudanese refugee who literally ran for his life during the Sudanese Civil War, in which South Sudan fought for liberation from the Arab- and Muslim-controlled Republic of Sudan.
With the help of an uncle, he settled in New Hampshire. He later changed his surname from Majak to Marial in honor of that uncle.
Marial took up running as a sport when a coach at Concord High noticed his seemingly unlimited stamina. His uncle moved to Florida, and Marial wanted to finish high school in Concord. The family of Larry and Mary Lou Ford took him in.
“When I first started to live with the Ford family, I was in a different culture, everything was new to me, and inside myself, I sometimes felt shame and guilt,” Marial told the New Hampshire Sunday News in a telephone interview. “I had never been in this situation, but people came forward with their help, and it makes you just want to be successful.”
Success in the struggle to find a spot in the Olympics after he qualified at the Twin Cities Marathon was also a fight that at times seemed unwinnable.
Fortunately, he had some significant support. Nawal El Matawakel, an Iowa State alumna and 1984 Olympic gold medal winner, is a member of the International Olympic Committee. U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., urged the IOC to support Marial's bid to become an independent participant. Social media also took up the cause.
“I thank the people of the United States and especially the U.S. senator of New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen, for her great letter to the IOC,” he said. “I am just thankful that this happened to the people of South Sudan, it is a good feeling.”
Leaders of the region's tightly woven Sudanese refugee community are proud of what he has accomplished and the example it sets for others.
“We live in New Hampshire, where there are not a lot of role models for our boys,” said Sarah Alier, a leader of the South Sudan community.
Marial accepts the responsibility to set an example, not only for the younger members of the Sudanese immigrant community, but also for their elders who are working for a new life.
“I just want to show the refugees or immigrants that they can do something, that they can have opportunity,” he said “When they have talent, they deserve and have a right and can have a place in the society.”
The next week will be busy for Marial. He must make arrangements to leave his home in Flagstaff, Ariz., and travel to London for the Games.
He is excited about taking his place at the Olympics, even if it is as an athlete with no national Olympic team.
“Every morning, I get up, and sometimes I'm real exhausted, and I don't want to run, and I look at a picture of my family, and I say. 'This is what I'm training for,'” he said. “If God gave me this talent and this education and I can be able to dedicate my life every single day to this kind of thing, one day God will give me the chance to support, to help my people, the people of South Sudan.”
His vow that the flag of his homeland will be in his heart is one he says will live with him as he runs his race, the most grueling of Olympic events.
“I am running for my country, even though my country will not have the flag,” he said.
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Bill Smith may be reached at email@example.com.
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