Guor Marial is a South Sudanese refugee who spent his high school years in Concord. He has now qualified to run the Olympic marathon.
In the past few weeks he’s had a lot of press: Time Magazine, the Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press, and too many other publications to name have run profiles on him. Marial’s story has spread so far because it’s basically the perfect Olympic story.
He will soon be running through the streets of London in Olympic livery, but back when he was a student at Concord High, he had a modest start to his training.
Annie Samuels: Yeah, initially when he first moved here apparently he was running to Hannaford, running to school, he didn’t have a car or a bike, and people who got to know him couldn’t believe that that’s how he got about.
Annie Samuels and her family hosted in 2005 Marial when he was a senior in high school. The Samuels are one of three families in Concord that took Marial under their wings while he developed from a total unknown to a local track star and now an international celebrity.
Marial’s story is a long and rocky one, beginning in Sudan during a violent civil war which he described in an interview on PRI’s The World.
Marial: At night around 1 am the security force came to our house and from there they start beating up my aunt, and I was sleeping there at the room with my cousin nd all we heard was the sound of my aunt screaming and we got up and as I opened the door all I felt was the butt of the rifle on my jaw.
The soldiers broke Marial’s jaw. After that he and an uncle fled to the US, hoping to find safety.
Once in New Hampshire he began learning English by watching Sesame Street, and worked almost full time at Hannaford so he could help support his family. And in between, a gym teacher discovered his cardiovascular prowess hooked him up with the track coach.
Marial: So he tells me and came and I show up in my basketball short and basketball shoes and he let me run on the track.
At that first, informal tryout, the coach – who was no slouch on the track himself – found that despite the basketball shoes he couldn’t keep up with Marial.
And classmate Pete Samuels, who both ran and lived with Marial, says that was always the case.
Pete Samuels: Guor was sort of miles ahead of us, figuratively and literally.
Not that that was a problem, says Samuels, because Marial’s talent and infectious cheer lifted the whole team.
Pete Samuels: Running behind someone with such a beautiful stride who’s so smooth, you just sort of develop admiration more than frustration that he’s faster than you.
Marial earned a scholarship to run at Iowa State, on a Division I team, and in 2011 graduated with a degree in Chemistry.
Less than a year after graduating he ran his very first marathon in just over 2 hours and fourteen minutes; that’s 26 miles at almost five minutes a mile. It’s good enough for top twenty – maybe even top ten – in the Olympics.
But there are issues: South Sudan as a country is only a year old, and not recognized by the International Olympic Committee; Marial is not yet an American citizen; and Sudan is not a country he wants to represent. He lost 28 family members in conflicts there.
But thankfully this perfect Olympic story seems to be getting its fairy-tale conclusion. Here’s Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who threw her weight behind Marial’s Olympic bid, thanking the IOC for letting him run as an independent.
Shaheen: I look forward to welcoming Guor home from the Olympics as a winner, regardless of the outcome of the marathon.
Marial’s is just the kind of story that makes Olympics season so inspiring: the humble, hardworking refugee, escapes hardship and overcomes obstacles to compete in the Olympics.
And it doesn’t hurt that those who lived with him, like Annie Samuels, say he’s really a great guy.
Annie Samuels: Neat, clean, kind, funny, helpful. I know I’m making it sound like he’s perfect, he’s not perfect.
Annie Samuels: The only thing he did was he lost a lot of socks, but the previous family told me that I’d have to buy a lot of socks so I’d been forewarned.
The Olympic Marathon takes place on August 12th, and wearing nothing but the five rings of the Olympics on his uniform, Guor Marial will be there.