Friday August 6, 2021
By ABIGAIL PESTA
At age 44, the marathoner is the oldest U.S. runner to ever make the Olympic team.
Jasper Colt/USA TODAY
His friends joke that he’s an old man. But at 44, marathon runner Abdi Abdirahman is still going the distance.
When the men’s marathon begins on Sunday morning in Tokyo, Abdirahman will represent America at the Games for the fifth time, becoming the oldest U.S. runner ever on the Olympic team. “You just have to enjoy what you do,” he says of his remarkable career, adding that at his age, “I have to put in a little more work than others.” He qualified for the Olympic team before the pandemic lockdown, so the yearlong delay of the Games was a hitch—another year of training, trying to avoid injury, not getting any younger—but one that he kept in perspective.
“It’s been a difficult year for the whole world. We’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “First and foremost is the health and well-being of the whole world. At the end of the day, the Olympics is a small part of our lives, to be honest; it’s just entertainment, a celebration of all sports, but the pandemic is bigger than that. My heart goes to the people who lost their lives. We’re gonna run for those people. It will be a celebration of life.”
Abdirahman didn’t grow up training for the Olympics. As a child in Somalia’s capital city of Mogadishu, he enjoyed playing soccer, hanging out with friends, “getting into trouble” for going to the beach when his parents said he was too young, he says. “I didn’t have any pressure, anyone trying to make me this great distance runner. My parents didn’t know anything about running.” His dad worked for an oil company, while his mom took care of him and his three siblings. “We had a good life in Somalia.”
And then one night, “the whole sky turned to red,” he recalls, as fires raged amid civil war outside his city. “Everything changed in one day.” Abdirahman, who was around 12 years old at the time, fled with his family, while his mother was pregnant, to a nearby town, and eventually to Kenya, where they stayed with relatives. Along the way, the family spent a short time in a refugee camp, which Abdirahman calls “the worst place,” where he remembers water dripping through holes overhead in his temporary shelter. “It was a bad memory. I try not to remember it, to be honest.”
In 1990, he boarded an airplane for the first time, coming to the U.S. with his family. “I remember the flight like it was yesterday. I was excited to fly; I remember dressing up in my best outfit,” he says. “That was the longest plane ride. We flew from the airport in Mombasa to Dublin, and then we came to New York, then Tucson, Ariz.. Landing in New York, I remember seeing the lights—everything was bright lights, everything that I thought was America. I thought, wow, we arrived.”
Landing in Tucson was a different experience, he says with a laugh. “It was so dark; it was totally different from New York, with all the buildings, all the lights. I thought we went back to Somalia.” The family settled in Tucson, living for the first few months in housing provided by the Catholic church, he says. “There’s a lot of people who helped us.”
His new life in America was an adjustment. Among the surprises: giant food stores. “I’d never seen a grocery shop before—all the fruits, all the candy, everything. Back home, we just had small shops, like mom-and-pop shops, next to each other, not just one big store where you could buy everything you wanted, the big gallon of orange juice, the chicken. Back home, you eat chicken on weekends or special occasions. Everything was different.” Middle school “wasn’t the easiest,” he says. For starters, he had to learn the language. “I tried to get along with the kids; I used to go to the neighborhood center to play basketball, just trying to communicate as much as I [could.] There were some kids who were my friends, some nice, and some who made fun of us, made funny noises, because we were from Africa. Kids have always been kids.”
After graduating from high school in 1995, he headed to Pima Community College, where a friend who ran cross country suggested he join the team. He decided to give it a shot. “I went to the coach and told him, ‘I want to join the cross country team.’ He said, ‘Did you ever run before?’ ” Abdirahman said no, but the coach invited him to come to practice nonetheless. “The next day, I came to practice, with my boots and jeans on,” he says. In a competition at practice, running in his boots, “I came in second on the team,” he says. “That’s how my running career started.”
One day in the fall of 1996, when he was running through the hills outside the city, training with his Pima teammates, the head coach for track and field and cross country at the University of Arizona at the time, Dave Murray, spotted him. “I just happened to see him running on a trail,” Murray recalls of the moment he spotted Abdirahman—“5’ 10” or so, 135 pounds, skinny legs. I just had a feeling about him."
Murray offered him a scholarship, to the surprise of his colleagues, as Abdirahman’s running times were not especially impressive, and the school had a limited number of scholarships. “My assistant coaches thought I was crazy,” Murray says. But his hunch turned out to be right. Abdirahman transferred to the University of Arizona for his junior year and soon became a star. “His first year he proved it: Whatever talent he had in his body definitely came to the forefront,” Murray says. “He had a tremendous cross country season for a novice, so to speak. He even got better his second year.”
Indeed, in 1998, he won Pac-10 titles in both the 5,000 meters and the 10,000 meters and placed second at the NCAA cross country championships. That same year, he was named Pac-10 Cross Country Athlete of the Year. In 1999, he took the Pac-10 title in the 5,000 meters again. And in 2000, he made the U.S. Olympic Team, for the first time. “I couldn’t believe I was an Olympian until I got to the opening ceremony,” Abdirahman says. “It was just overwhelming. It was every dream, every little kid that wants to be an Olympian’s dream.”
Just before making the Olympic team, he had experienced another milestone—becoming a U.S. citizen. “It was amazing,” he says. “I always considered America my adopted country. I love running for America because they gave us a second opportunity in life. I’m so thankful; I never take anything for granted.” That includes every race he runs. “Every time I step on that line, it’s not something I take lightly. I make the best out of it. I know where I came from; there are thousands of people who would love to have the opportunity that I have.”
Abdirahman placed tenth in the 10,000 meters at the Olympics in 2000, graduated from the University of Arizona in 2001, and went on to make four more Olympic teams, in 2004, ’08, ’12, and ’20. Early on, he signed a contract with Nike, and he remembers being amazed that he could get paid to do something he loves. “I said wow, I’m a professional distance runner,” he says. “It was really the best thing ever.” A friend told him he should come up with a nickname to market himself, and he jokingly suggested “the black cactus.” The name stuck.
He has continued to work with coach Murray all along. “He has stayed with me since 1997,” Murray says. “One of the major things I think of Abdi’s success—and it’s not that I’m the greatest coach in the world—it’s that he has stayed with me since college. One of the things I’ve seen over the many years I’ve coached is that a lot of collegiate runners, in particular distance runners, once they leave college, they have a tendency to say, ‘If I go to this particular coach who has great runners, I think I can get better.’ In many cases that may be true, but in a lot of cases it is definitely not true. I think sticking with the coach you had a lot of success with in college carries over into your career.”
Abdirahman agrees, saying he appreciates how Murray took a risk in giving him a scholarship all those years ago, helping him realize his talent. “I’ve had 20-plus years with the same coach; I believe if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he says.
Both men talk of their friendship. “Abdi is like one of my second sons,” Murray says. “I have a daughter and a son here in Tucson and five grandkids—my grandkids think of him as a brother. Ever since he came to the U of A in 1997, he’s been part of our family. He’ll spend Christmas dinner with us, Thanksgiving dinner with us.” He adds with a laugh, “It’s been fun to be around Abdi for so long. He’s just a great, great human being. My thing about Abdi is, he might be 44, but he’s actually  going on 16—he’s still a kid.”
Abdirahman has returned to Somalia for visits over the years, recalling how the first time he went back, he was struck by the contrasts to the life he had become accustomed to in America. “You’re a product of your environment; I got used to the U.S., the lifestyle, the roads,” he says. “It was a little bit difficult seeing the lifestyle of the people there, but at the end of the day, most people, they might have nothing, but they live a happy life. Us Americans, we plan for the future; we plan 50, 60 years from now. We have retirement plans. They live for everyday life—they live for today because they don’t know what tomorrow holds, most of them. There are some people who are wealthier who have future plans, but most people live with their daily earnings and they’re happy.”
In preparation for these Olympics, he trained in Ethiopia, taking advantage of “a good atmosphere, good weather, a good group of friends [to train] with,” including longtime friend and Somalian-born British distance runner Mo Farah, a four-time Olympic gold medalist. “For me to get better and to get the best out of myself, I cannot train by myself, I have to train with people who are better than me, who push me to be great and also believe in me,” he says.
He adds, “I love my friends, they’re jokesters. Mo calls me the grandpa now. But it’s OK; it’s all for the fun of the sport. That’s what makes it so great training with this group of guys. Last year before the trials, they’re the ones that gave me the confidence—even though I did the work and did everything I could—they gave me the confidence to make the team. If the best runners in the world tell you you can make the team, nothing can stop you. You just have to be your best in everything.”
Coach Murray credits training with top runners in the high altitudes of Ethiopia with putting Abdirahman in “probably the best distance shape of his life.” Murray and Abdirahman keep in touch every other day or so now, he says, adding, “I don’t worry about Abdi; he knows what he has to do. He can honestly be pretty much self-trained if he had to. He knows exactly what we do over all these years.”
To be training for the Olympics amid the pandemic and the widespread protests against racial injustice has made for a historic year, one that Abdirahman reflects on thoughtfully. “At the end of the day, I hope we can learn from what happened and we can all have equal opportunity. We are not a perfect nation and it’s going to take time,” he says. “It depends on us to stand up for what’s right. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, we’re all American and should be treated equally. I think what happened last year will make us a better nation.”
As for what to expect from the 44-year-old at the Tokyo Games, Murray says, “As long as he’s healthy, I think he’ll run very, very well.” He praises Abdirahman for making his fifth Olympic team when doubters didn’t think he could do it. When the Games were delayed by a year, he notes, some coaches thought the Olympic trials should be redone. “I know there were some coaches who I heard that said, ‘Hey, Abdi’s gonna be 44 when he runs the Olympics. Hey, we need to run the trials again.’ But that wouldn’t have been fair.” He adds, “I’m just so proud of him. To be able to compete at the national level and into the world level, to make an Olympic team at his age, that’s unheard of. I keep saying, ‘Abdi, you’ve got to start thinking about what you’re gonna do when you can no longer run professionally.’”