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HERO FOR A THIRSTY LAND
Kenny Moore
May 30, 1988
ABDI BILE, THE WORLD 1,500-METER CHAMP, IS THE PRIDE OF SOMALIA, A COUNTRY OF POETS AND DROUGHT
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May 30, 1988

Hero For A Thirsty Land

ABDI BILE, THE WORLD 1,500-METER CHAMP, IS THE PRIDE OF SOMALIA, A COUNTRY OF POETS AND DROUGHT

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His land, his life, had prepared Bile to hang in. So to hear him tell it, his 1983 adjustment to life at a leafy, academically demanding Virginia college was not unduly traumatic. But he suffered. "The winter was cold." he says. "We Muslims eat no pork, and sometimes it seemed I was faced with pork at every meal. I never stopped thinking about Somalia."

English was Bile's millstone. "If it took U.S. kids a half hour to read something." says Cook, "it took him two hours because of looking up all the words. He was too dogmatic about school. His eyes went bad, and his back went out because of six or seven hours of reading every night. We had him skip cross-country season so he could study."

Cook argued for a better balance. But Bile dug in. "This was my mission." he says. "School is what I came for as much as my running." He adds, with deceptive lightness. "You know. I never give up."

"Even so, he got discouraged." says Cook. "Once he got a 79.5 on an accounting exam. Eighty was a B. It took me three days to prop him up. I talked to the professor. He just said. "It's like the difference between running 3:59.5 and 4:00.0. I knew enough not to pursue it."

"That day I just cried in the class," says Bile. "Only twice in my life have I cried."

He was more stoic about his injuries. The unaccustomed weather, road running and weight training, along with a late growth spurt of two inches, left him vulnerable to pulls, strains and breaks. "All the coaches, trainers and doctors did their best," says Bile, who was touched. "Mary Cook. John's wife, used to take me to the swimming pool at 7 a.m. when I had a stress fracture before the '84 Olympics."

His talent shone through the setbacks, and Bile was soon a force. He finished fifth in his semifinal in the Los Angeles Olympic 1,500, in 3:35.89, but was disqualified; officials apparently felt that he had pushed a runner who had fallen. That was the second time he cried.

Few, if any, college track coaches have the luxury of conservatively grooming talented milers. "I felt pressure to stay within the system," says Cook, "the cross-country in the fall, the indoor races all winter, outdoor all spring. That first year I sure didn't do him any favors throwing him into all that, and I regret it."

Bile knows his coach's remorse is unwarranted. "I think he did a great job," says Bile. "We always got along, and a lot of other college coaches...well, they would have killed me."

"After that first year, I realized I had to pull back. I came under his influence," Cook says. "You listen to him, and he usually makes so much sense. We talked about the big picture, the world record, the two-year plan, and after a while the NCAA stuff wasn't that important anymore. If he could run, fine, but even if he couldn't—and a hamstring injury kept him out most of 1986—I knew there would be sunshine at the end of the tunnel."

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