Guor Marial, a Sudanese refugee and 2005 graduate of Concord High School whose story of survival and success against the longest odds has captured hearts worldwide, had a most remarkable place to be this morning: on the starting line for the men's Olympic Marathon in London, England.
If he were not in London today, chances are Marial would be in Concord, catching up with high school teammates and friends, former coaches and families with whom he lived during his last couple of years of high school.
“I'm sure he'd rather be at that starting line,” Dick Samuels, an attorney with Manchester's McLane Law Firm, said with a laugh.
If he had not run a time that qualified him for the Olympic marathon and if a campaign on his behalf that was lagging had not gained huge momentum in the final weeks before the event, allowing him to complete in London, Marial, who lived with the Samuels' family as a senior, likely would have come to Concord to take part in a celebration of Dick Samuels' 60th birthday this weekend.
The Olympics won out.
Marial's is a story of winning out long before today's race began — and no matter its outcome.
It's a tale of a young refugee who survived raids, beatings and killings that cost him family members and then escaped from war-ripped Sudan at about the age of 10, finally settling in Concord where, with much assistance, he began to rebuild his life.
It's a tale of support from people such as CHS teammates Stephen Ford and Pete Samuels and their families, who took Marial in and made him part of the family, and from former coach Rusty Cofrin, who brought him along as a racer.
It's a tale of a hardworking, focused and slender young man, about 5 feet 11 inches and 130 pounds, who continually fought through back problems to run and put in long hours working and lifting produce at the Hannaford's supermarket on Fort Eddy Road.
Marial struggled to learn English and knew running only as a means of escape when he got to New Hampshire. He proceeded to use the sport to help open doors here on the way to high school championships, and has been able to use it to get an all expenses-paid education and a degree in chemistry from Iowa State University, which took a chance on him.
“Running was to get away from my enemies,” he told a reporter while at Iowa State
Now running is opening even more doors.
Running and his accomplishments have made Marial a role model in Manchester's Southern Sudanese community.
“Our children see someone who grew up with them as a refugee and say, 'I can become this,'” said Sarah Alier, a longtime leader among the Southern Sudanese in the city and a friend of Marial's family. “This is someone who has played with them and has been in the community and is a success. They can see that they can decide to do anything in the future and succeed.”
Alier said the community appreciates the effort that led to Marial being in London today.
From his first marathon, last fall's Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis, where his time of 2 hours 14 minutes was fast enough to qualify for the Olympics, Marial had been attempting to get into the London Games.
He has been working nights and training during the day in Flagstaff, Ariz., and is a permanent resident of the United States. But he is not a citizen of the country, so he was not eligible to earn one of the three spots on the U.S. team at the Olympic Trials. South Sudan, his native country, is just a year old and has no Olympic committee, and thus there was no avenue to run for it. And he had no interest in running for Sudan, the country he escaped from to survive.
The effort to be accepted to the Olympics was going poorly until Philip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune helped spark the last-minutes movement that got Marial approved to run as an independent athlete under the Olympic flag. U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and others assisted, as well.
“He has given us pride, and we also thank all the Americans who have supported him to find a way where he can go to show his talent,” Ariel said. “We know he doesn't have the proper documents and doesn't have the citizenship, and we thank the American community for finding a way to let him go to the Olympics. We know everything needs to be done according to the law, and they found a way for him to go.”
This morning, Marial is in London and running while millions watch on television around the world.
His extended family in Manchester will look on with pride, and all over Concord, folks will be up early to watch the young runner, who has been labeled an Olympian without a country.
Red River Theaters on Main Street in Concord announced early last week that it would open its 109-seat Stonyfield Theater to the public free of charge and expects to have a full house. Doors open at 5:45 a.m. for the 6 a.m. race.
The racing side of the story started, and nearly ended, at Concord High.
CHS football head coach Eric Brown, who played at Manchester Central High and Plymouth State University, was an assistant coach at Concord and a physical education teacher. He first noticed Marial, who then used the last name Majak, during fitness workouts late in his sophomore year.
“He had that natural, easy gait of a marathon runner,” Brown said. “He just stood out. He made it look easy.”
Brown talked to Cofrin, and the coach had Marial meet him after practice on the track at Memorial Field.
“He showed up in a complete basketball outfit,” Cofrin said. “Basketball shoes, baggy shorts, floppy socks. I kind of rolled my eyes.”
They were rolling no more when Marial took off and blistered Cofrin, an accomplished runner, on the last couple of laps of a two-mile track workout.
Marial continued to show off his speed and began to learn how to race. As a senior in cross country, he finished second to Portsmouth standout Corey Thorne in the Class L meet and rebounded to beat Thorne in the state Meet of Champions at Derryfield Park.
He closed out his high school career by winning a national 2-mile championship in New York City that winter, which got the attention of Iowa State and others. Marial, who turned 21 in the spring of his senior year at Concord, had petitioned the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association for an age exemption and was allowed to run in the fall and indoor track seasons, but was not allowed to run that spring.
Long before that, his running career almost ended before it really got going. He wanted to quit early in his junior season and met with Cofrin.
“The poor kid was being pulled in so many directions,” the former coach said. “Pulled by teachers at schools, by friends, by me, the team, at work. His money had to go back to the Sudan to his family, and he was catching a lot of heat at home because he wasn't able to work enough.”
There was more.
“I said, That's all important. What else?,” Cofrin recalled. “He said, 'My brother died. He was killed.' And then the tears came out.”
Cofrin assured Guor he would help make things work out, that staying in school was the best way to help his family in the long run.
When Marial, 28, got word that he was indeed going to be allowed to compete in the Olympics, he recalled that conversation with Cofrin.
“He called and said, 'Coach, the first thing I thought of when I heard was the discussion we had about my brother and you told me you were not going to allow me to quit,'” Cofrin, now retired, said. “There are some rewards for coaching and teaching and all that stuff.”
Miles to go
“You look at how viral his story has gone,” said Stephen Ford, Marial's high school teammate and housemate and now a pharmacist in Portland, Maine.
“It just hits people. It's a hard story for people to read, even for people who know him. It brings the emotions forth. Knowing him, how can he be such a positive, kind, generous and honest person and have gone through all this? To me, it's kind of mind-blowing that he's persevered, and here he is: qualified for the Olympic Marathon after going through what I think is a kind of hell.”
Marial's supporters aren't sure what to expect today. They hope for the best in just his third marathon ever — he ran his second on June 3 in San Diego and improved to 2:12:55 — but fear that the lateness of the decision, the logistics of getting to London and now the intense media attention and other distractions may have disrupted his focus.
Larry Ford and Dick Samuels, whose families the runner joined in high school, know this is another positive step on Marial's long journey and hope it leads to more.
It would be great to get a good finish today, or even four years down the road in the next Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, they say.
But they want something else, too.
“Speaking like a father, what's more important to me is he gets a good job and a good career,” Samuels said. “That will be lifelong. Endorsements for long-distance runners, they're not there. They don't put marathon runners on Wheaties boxes ... Frankly, I hope this (acclaim) leads to some good job opportunities.”
In the end, Marial, they said, has well earned the chances he has received, including the one he has today.
“He's very committed and such a wonderful person,” Larry Ford said. “It's just great to see this opportunity has found its way to him. Or that he has found his way to the opportunity. Or some combination of the above.”
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Allen Lessels may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.