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Olympic dreams fulfilled

Last modified: 7/22/2012 12:00:00 AM
Guor Marial won't be wearing a South Sudanese uniform, but he will be running in the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee announced yesterday that it will allow Marial, a 2005 Concord High graduate, to compete in the Aug. 12 marathon as an Independent Olympic Athlete.

"I was shocked when I heard, and very grateful," Marial said from his home in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Marial, 28, had been petitioning the IOC since he ran an impressive qualifying time in October. But the newly formed country of South Sudan, where he was born, doesn't have a national organizing committee so isn't allowed an Olympic team. He can't compete for the United States because he's not a full citizen. And he politely declined an invitation to run for Sudan, the nation that shattered his childhood with civil war. But now Marial can represent, and inspire, all of his people, no matter where life has thrown them.

"I have a chance to influence young Sudanese, whether they are in South Sudan or outside South Sudan," Marial said. "The young kids they might see something on TV, but they have no idea they could do that too, because they don't see one of their own doing the same thing, but once they see one of their own doing it, that's when a lot of them can put a thought in their mind that, 'Okay, maybe there's another road that we can take and we can succeed and we can do better.' "

He has known more than his share of roads. Marial spent years trying to flee Africa, where he lost 28 family members to the violence, disease and hunger caused by the decades-long Sudanese civil war. His elementary school days were interrupted by gunfire and flights into the woods from invading forces. He was kidnapped, forced into virtual slavery and assaulted repeatedly. The road finally led him away from the war in 2001, and that July he landed in Laconia.

Five months later, Guor Majak Marial was in Concord, except he was just known as Guor Majak then. He said he was asked for two names, so he only gave the first two.

Marial struggled during his freshman year at Laconia, but he thrived in Concord, where he was able to study with other African students. That's also when he fell in love with distance running with some help from Crimson Tide Coach Rusty Cofrin and a nudge from phys ed teacher Eric Brown.

By the end of his high school days, Marial won the state cross country title and a national two-mile championship and had a scholarship to Iowa State. There he earned a degree in chemistry, starred for the cross country and track teams, and started going by Guor Marial.

After graduating from ISU in 2011, Marial moved to Flagstaff to train for marathons. The move paid off quickly. Last fall, he qualified for the Olympics, with his fifth-place time of two hours, 14 minutes and 32 seconds at the Twin Cities Marathon in Saint Paul. It was his first-ever marathon.

After that result, an "A" qualifying time by Olympic standards, he began emailing the IOC and the South Sudanese government with requests to compete in London, but he met resistance on both fronts. Still, he kept training and wound up sixth in a June marathon in San Diego with a time of 2:12:55.

Perhaps more importantly, that's where he met California lawyer Brad Poore, a fellow marathoner who had helped Kenyan runners with similar problems in the past.

Poore took over communications for Marial and began putting pressure on the IOC through media outlets and the United Nations. The strategy worked, and now Marial, who doesn't have a passport, is waiting for the documents that will allow him to travel internationally before he leaves for London. He'll walk under the Olympic flag during the opening ceremonies and wear a generic uniform when he runs, but Marial said he will be carrying South Sudan in his heart. He's also got plenty of room in there for Concord.

The Sudanese family that Marial came to New Hampshire with actually moved from Concord in 2003. Marial, however, didn't leave with them. Instead, he stayed with the Cofrins, with the family of classmate Steven Ford and, during his senior year, with the Samuels family, whom he still visits at Christmastime.

"A special thank you to the hometown of Concord and the state of New Hampshire," Marial said. "To Sen. Shaheen (who wrote to the IOC on Marial's behalf), to Richard Samuels, the whole Samuels family, the Cofrins, the Fords, the Metcalfes, the Concord High School community, everyone right down the line, I can not thank everyone in Concord enough."

Marial was like many teenagers at Concord High. Working at Hannaford, trying to juggle school, sports and an ever-changing life at home, and dreaming big, like Olympics big.

"After I started running in high school, I watched the 2004 Olympics and I remember thinking, 'One day, hopefully, I will be able to do that,' " Marial said. "The Olympics is unique. Even if people don't know what sport you do, if they know you are going to the Olympics, they are like, 'Wow.' It's amazing."

Marial hopes he can use that wow-factor to make a positive impact on the world. That's another dream he's held for a long time, even longer than the Olympic dream.

"When I started school in Sudan, my goal was to be a doctor, to help people, because I saw young kids die with no help, no medication," Marial said. "They could not get health care because of the war, and that put in my mind that one day when I get an opportunity, I will go to school and get an education and help people."

That desire is one of the reasons why Marial majored in chemistry at Iowa State. He plans to further his education so he can become either a research scientist or a pharmacist, but graduate school will have to wait. Marial has a fledgling nation to make proud first.

"For me, I hold my country over my education. This is an opportunity to represent my country, and it would be a great honor to represent my country and what they fought for, what the million, two million people died for," Marial said.

As for the race itself, which seems almost an afterthought, Marial said he has no expectations. He hasn't been training specifically for the Olympic marathon since he was never sure he'd get there. His training has been geared toward an October marathon in Chicago, so he won't be perfectly primed for the Aug. 12 race, the final event of the Games.

"I'm just going in open minded and to be the underdog. I'll use the strategies I used in my previous races, and I should be okay," Marial said. "It may not be a gold medal, it may not be any medal, but anything can happen at the Olympics."

Considering his talent and motivation, it would be no surprise to see anything happen for Marial in London. But those results don't truly matter. Guor Majak Marial has already won.


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