The leadership of the long-distance runner
Guor Marial ran 26.2 miles around London last month in the Olympics. But he doesn't see it as a marathon. The race was just one leg of a relay, and yesterday he had a message for refugee students at Concord High School: You're getting the baton next.
Throughout the marathon, throughout the interviews with CNN, NBC and Al Jazeera about his status as a South Sudanese refugee running independently, his thoughts were with them and the other refugees around the world, he said.
"When you start something, you don't want to see it just stay where it is. You want it to get bigger. . . . I'm starting something, but this is for the young generation of refugees and South Sudan, to come forward and take the leadership, and hopefully you will be better than me," he said. "I expect you to be the ones here tomorrow."
Before he spoke intimately with the refugee students, Marial, a 2005 Con-
cord High graduate, received a hero's welcome from the entire student body yesterday on the steps of the school. He promised to give the school his Olympic bib number to display in the foyer of the gymnasium.
The crowd of students looking up at him was significantly more diverse than when he attended; there were fewer than 50 refugee students in his final year. Today, former refugees make up 10 percent of the 1,800 students, according to Principal Gene Connolly.
Marial was born in Sudan, where his people were being killed in a civil war. He escaped from slavery and fled to Egypt with an aunt and uncle, who brought him eventually to Concord.
Concord High is where Marial began running track and cross country. He went on to win state and national titles and earned All-America honors running for Iowa State University.
He also earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry, which was one of his favorite subjects in high school because numbers and formulas didn't need translating, he told the refugee students. Many nodded and laughed when he said his hardest subject was English.
In his first year, he would stop at most of his classes just to pick up the assignments, and go to an office where aides helped him learn the material, and the language.
Running has brought him accolades and fame, but at first it was a "life-saver" that brought structure to his days and friends to his life, he told the students.
"When I first came here, before I started sports, I (would) hang out with the wrong people. I would go home and sometimes I don't do homework, I'd play around and play basketball. . . . I missed all the deadlines," he said. "I was struggling. I was going in the wrong direction because for teenagers it's all about making friends, feeling comfortable."
Once he joined the track team, he had his teammates for friends, and no more time to waste. School, practice, work and homework filled his every waking hour.
Before he spoke to the refugee students and later, to the entire student body, Marial met briefly with the two Concord High students who are also from South Sudan.
He encouraged them to study hard, even if they have other talents, too.
"A (college) degree stays with you for the rest of your life," he said. "Right now, I'm a runner, but I could break my leg right now and if I don't have a degree, I'm nothing."
The students, cousins Jane Aparo Yen and Sam Obita Yen, wanted to know where Marial was, what he had felt, when he learned that South Sudan had voted for its independence from Sudan in the north.
On the day of the vote, he was driving from Iowa to Arizona, where he would begin to train for the Olympics, he told them.
"It was the best feeling I have ever seen. . . . I was on the highway all by myself with the flag flying in the car," Marial said. He turned up the TV in his Colorado hotel room and danced and celebrated alone, with his people.
He said he hoped his Olympic achievements inspired them and other refugees to "dream bigger, and see anything is possible."
One of those students, 16-year-old Jane Aparo Yen, who came to Concord from Sudan in 2003, already has big dreams.
"When I was little, I knew I've got to do something, come here and be successful at school and do something with the U.N., or be a doctor or something. I pray to God, make me successful, grow my own wings and let me go to my country and be a light." she said.
"He actually did it first so now, I'm like, 'ooh, I'm gonna be the second,' " she said.
She said meeting Marial was a miracle.
"I don't know how to describe it. There is someone representing our country. It is glorious, like a miracle happened to me," she said. "It is like suddenly, I have hope."
(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or email@example.com or on Twitter @SpalermoNews.)