Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 4. Below are some personal choices for that honor by SI writers.
11/20/2006 05:01:00 PM
My Sportsman: Suleiman Rifai
Suleiman Rifai moved to the U.S. from Tanzania at age 19 and competes in marathons as a visually impaired runner.
Courtesy of Suleiman Rifai
By Melissa Segura
My Sportsman of the Year fell flat on his face.
The runners who started ahead of him in the 2006 ING New York City Marathon didn't think of the hazard they created as they dropped their sweatpants and shirts along the course. So Suleiman Rifai found himself face-first on the street, tripped by the debris and the disease that left him blind and unable to avoid whatever blocked his path.
Which is exactly why Suleiman is my Sportsman: He simply doesn't see obstacles. Left blind at age 8 by retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited eye affliction that causes progressive and sometimes total blindness, Suleiman moved from his native Tanzania to New York when he was 19 to re-learn how to live at a rehabilitation center for the blind.
And boy, did he re-learn. He decided to dance, and ended up alongside Alvin Ailey. He went back to school and got a masters -- cum laude, of course. He not only became a counselor for drug addicts, but homeless drug addicts. After being stuck in his home most during most of his adolescence, he lives as if he needs to account for that lost time, living more life, showing everyone who meets him that there's a difference between a disability and inability and it's a choice -- which is why I found myself tethered to Suleiman on 100-degree days, guiding him along on his training runs. If Suleiman was going to run, it naturally had to be a marathon.
On our runs he told me how he swims on Mondays, runs Tuesdays, dances Wednesdays, spins Thursdays ... I would have contributed to the conversation, but that would have required breath. And I had none.
"C'mon, Grandma," he'd taunt to me as I ran up the hills -- him walking right beside me just to taunt my lack of speed. When I could no longer keep pace with him , he began working out on a treadmill with me pushing the buttons. "More," he'd tell me, asking for more of an incline, more speed.
"But, Suli, this is already a hard workout," I'd say.
"Everything is harder for me," he'd reason, demonstrating the strength of spirit, the depths of his drive. "I have no choice."
He does, actually. And he chooses to see what's possible.
Suleiman crossed the finish line in 4:28:44, a time that qualifies him for the Boston Marathon -- with more than 40 minutes to spare -- as a visually impaired runner. He would fall two more times before completing the race.
But it in the end it wasn't the falling down that mattered. It was the getting up that counted.