Meseret Defar donated her 2004 Olympic 5,000-meter gold medal to a church museum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She was 20 years old when that one was draped around her neck in Athens.
Eight years later at the London Games, Defar became the only woman to win two gold medals in the 5,000. That medal is on display in the hallway of her Addis Ababa home.
Since 2016, when knee pain prevented her from competing at the Rio de Janeiro Games — “That was the most difficult time for me.” — Defar has focused on marathon training. It has been a difficult transition for one of Ethiopia’s most revered runners. Because of recurring knee injuries, she still has not debuted at 26.2 miles.
Come Sunday, when nearly 20,000 runners, walkers and wheelchair athletes take to the streets for the 21st Synchrony Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego Marathon & Half Marathon, Defar will be among them.
She’s running the half. If her body cooperates, she hopes to make her marathon debut come fall, likely in Chicago, New York or Berlin.
Sitting at a downtown hotel lobby, having just landed after 26 hours of travel from Addis Ababa to Dublin to Washington, then to San Diego, Defar said, “This is a very important race for me.”
Defar’s trophy haul counts 13 world championship outdoor and indoor medals and three Olympic medals, silver at the 5,000 in 2008 accompanying the golds. She has set world records at 3,000 meters, two miles and the 5,000. She still owns the 5,000-meter road world record, set at the Carlsbad 5000 in 2006.
She is 34 years old now, the mother of two adopted daughters, ages 10 and 17. Her daughter by birth, Gabrielle, turns 4 later this month. Some people would be satisfied with those accomplishments and move on to another stage in life.
“I think I was born to be an athlete,” said Defar, who is 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighs 95 pounds. “I was born for this sport.”
Defar was raised about eight miles outside Addis Ababa. She was the fourth of six children. Her father was a mechanic. Her mother raised the family. For water, the children walked about a mile across hilly terrain to a river, loaded buckets and returned home. It often took multiple trips.
Defar said she began retrieving water when she was 6. To stock a wood-burning stove, the children headed to nearby woods.
“I grew up with very hard work,” said Defar. “I think because of that I am a strong athlete.”
Distance runners are constantly pushing their bodies, chasing that red line of optimum fitness, hoping not to cross the line. In her marathon pursuit, Defar has pushed too hard.
“(Finishing) No. 2 or No. 12 is the same for her,” said Defar’s husband and coach, Tewodrus Hailu.
Matt Turnbull, an Englishman who recruits elite distance runners for races and knows Defar well, has visited her in Addis Ababa and watched her train.
“She’s one of the hardest working athletes I’ve ever come across,” said Turnbull. “I’ve seen how hard she works, in mountains and on the track. She’s determined to get back to her best.”
Defar pushed too hard after giving birth to Gabrielle.
“I didn’t understand how my body would react, thinking (it would be) like before,” she said. “My body was not working after having a baby.”
The knee problems have nagged her ever since. She last raced in September, winning the Rock ’n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon. She was expected to make her marathon debut in February in Tokyo but the knee pain returned.
“My health now is good,” she said.
Defar likes San Diego, having won the Carlsbad 5000 four times, greeted at the finish line by Ethiopian expatriates waving the country’s yellow, red and green flag.
She remembers being greeted at the airport when she first came here in 2006 by the late Mike Long, the popular Irishman who recruited elite athletes. Long gave the African athletes phone cards to call family back home.
“He had a very beautiful smile,” said Defar.
She’s back again, at 34, health willing, with something to prove.
“Her career isn’t finished,” said Turnbull. “She’s hitting the reset button. This is not the end of the book. It’s a new chapter.”
HITTING THE STREETS
What: Synchrony Rock ’n’ Roll San Diego Marathon and Half Marathon
When: Sunday, 6:15 a.m.
Start: Sixth Avenue and Quince Street
Finish: Waterfront Park
Norcross is a freelance writer.
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