2012 Olympics | July 27 - August 12
Posted: Saturday August 11, 2012 5:32PM ; Updated: Saturday August 11, 2012 5:51PM
David Epstein

South Sudan's symbol of hope (cont.)

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Screams in the night

The long, bloody war in Sudan devastated the country
Guor Marial's family suffered horribly as war ravaged their home country.

From My Story:

"I went to stay with my uncle [Marial] in Khartoum. He was living in a small town called Jabel that was 20 miles away from Khartoum. At the time, my uncle was working with the Non Government Organization (NGO) to help the refugees. He worked there for eight years, from 1992 until 1999. In September of 1999, the Sudanese government accused my uncle of having a connection with the Southern Sudan People Liberation Army (SSPLA). He was not a member of any political movement. His job was to help and to translate language for refugees. This happened on November 2, 1999. They arrested him at his work place and took him to where none of his co-workers or us knew where they took him. ... I went to bed and left my aunt [Zaneb] sitting at the dining room table with her arms around her head. ...

"On the next day, at midnight, a group of soldiers came to my house. We were all sleeping, except Zaneb, who was the only one still awake. They knocked on our house door. She got up and opened the door for them. My aunt was desperately hoping that it was my uncle knocking. It was not him. It actually was a group of soldiers that were carrying weapons and long black sticks. At that time I didn't know how they got into the house. All I heard was the screaming and the voices of people. I immediately jumped out of my bed, followed by Luba [Guol's cousin]. I closed the door behind me and told Luba 'don't move.' As I turned my head toward where the noise came from, I saw someone out of the corner of my left eye jump out with a gun and hit me on my left jaw. I fell to the ground and lost consciousness. They left afterward and left us lying on the ground. We stayed there until the next morning. At 6 a.m., my aunt called the church people to take us to Khartoum hospital.

"That was when I realized that my six bottom teeth and my jaw were broken."

Officials from Marial's church gave him and his aunt train tickets to Egypt. The United Nations workers took Marial to a dental hospital and gave him food. A year-and-a-half after Guor arrived in Egypt, his uncle finally showed up there, having survived his ordeal in Khartoum. He had escaped his captors by playing dead amid soldiers' gunfire. Months later, Marial and his uncle were granted asylum in the United States.

A new challenge

In the summer of 2001, Marial and his uncle were placed in New Hampshire by the International Organization for Migration, and Guor started learning English. He had not finished fifth grade in Sudan, but he went straight into ninth in the U.S. "Given that I didn't know English real well, and I did not have a good background of academic, it was very, very challenging," Marial says.

In 2003, in search of better weather, Marial's uncle moved to Florida, leaving Guor to live with a local family. By that time he was running track. A gym teacher at Concord High had noticed his indefatigability and sent him to the track coach, Rusty Cofrin, who realized Marial's prowess when Guor ran him silly while wearing basketball shoes.

Marial quickly became popular with the team, and when his uncle left for Florida, he moved in with teammate Steve Ford and his parents, Mary Lou and Larry. The Fords later relocated to Massachusetts, so Marial moved in with coach Cofrin. Finally, he went to live in the place that he still calls "home" -- with teammate Peter Samuels and his parents, Annie and Richard.

"They welcomed me in their house like their son," Marial says.

Marial was a good student, and an extremely good but not phenom-level distance runner. The fact that he was still learning English, and thus struggled on his SAT, scared off many college coaches. But not Corey Ihmels of Iowa State.

"He was a risk, because you didn't know if he'd be a [NCAA] qualifier," Ihmels says. "For whatever reason, I kept recruiting him. We weren't that good at the time and there was something about him I really liked. Once I got him on campus, I felt, man, he's going to blossom here. It was a leap of faith."

Sort of.

Ihmels was a sub-four minute miler at Iowa State in the 1990s and had run with some outstanding Kenyans. He'd seen how rapidly they adjusted to college, so he knew they could succeed in the classroom. (Iowa State also has a strong Sudanese population. The late John Garang, a political leader in southern Sudan during the civil war and an icon to many people there, got his Ph.D. at Iowa State.)

Marial was given a scholarship, and just three days before classes started the NCAA granted him an academic waiver, meaning that he could attend Iowa State but would have to sit out his first year of running in order to concentrate on school. Marial hit the books, hard, choosing to study chemistry so that he can become a doctor one day. Even when he became eligible to run, in his second year, he studied furiously.

"When we traveled to a race," Ihmels says, "he's in books the whole time. On the bus to the airport, on the plane, in the lobby of the hotel. When he wasn't competing, he had a book open. You didn't know each semester if he was going to make it through ... and he worked extremely hard to do it."

Ihmels had some conversations with Marial when the struggling student was nearly in tears.

"Like, Why is everything so hard for me?" Ihmels says. "He's a bright kid. I feel like he almost had to translate everything."

And Marial would refuse the offer of extra time on tests. "He didn't want to be that guy," Ihmels says.

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