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Abdi Bile — January, 2021
Abdi Bile is the 1987 World Champion at 1,500 meters, the first Somali athlete to earn a Gold Medal at the Olympics or World Championships. At the IAAF Grand Prix Final for 1,500 meters, he earned Gold Medals in 1987 and 1989, a Silver Medal in 1993 and a Bronze Medal in 1994. Abdi competed in the 1984 and 1996 Olympics with a best finish of sixth place, while injuries sidelined him in 1988 and 1992. Other top performances, all at 1,500 meters, include a 1985 African Championships Silver Medal, 1989 World Cup Gold Medal and 1991 World Championship Bronze Medal. At George Mason University, Bile won the 1985 and 1987 NCAA Championships at 1,500 meters and numerous conference titles while also a member of the Penn Relays sprint medley relay champions. Abdi holds nine Somalian National Records – outdoors at 800 meters, 1,000 meters, 1,500 meters, the mile, 2,000 meters, 3,000 meters and the 4 x 1,500-meter relay, and indoors at 1,500 meters and the mile. In ten calendar years, he ran sub-3:35 for 1,500 meters. Personal best times are: 800 meters – 1:43.60; 1,000 meters – 2:14.50; 1,500 meters – 3:30.55; mile – 3:49.40; 2,000 meters – 4:59.77 and 3,000 meters – 7:42.18. Abdi works with the Loppet Foundation in Minneapolis to improve the healthiness of underserved communities, including the large Somali population in the area. The Somali National Hero has returned to his home country twice for two years at a time to encourage running, fitness and physical education. Abdi and his wife have two sons and one daughter and reside in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was very generous to spend two and a half hours on the telephone for this interview.
GCR: BIG PICTURE It has been nearly 35 years since you won the 1987 World Championships 1,500 meters in Rome, Italy. What has it meant to you to become on that day and to be forever more a World Champion and how did it change the course of your life as a runner an as an inspiration to others?
AB It was a great victory for me and for my country because it was the first victory for my country and for my people. The whole world would hear my National Anthem for the first time. It was an incredible feeling. Everything was focused on what it meant to my country and what it meant to my people, to me, and to my nation. It was the first time and was a huge and incredible thing to happen. The other feeling for me was that it was validation in major ways for mainly two reasons. When I started running in my country, it wasn’t easy. We never had an Olympic Champion or World Champion or somebody out there to lead the way, though we did have some decent runners. Running was not normal to our people. Elite, world class running was nonexistent. Every time I shared with a friend, any Somali, about my dream, it was a laughing matter. They thought that I was a lunatic. To say that I was going to be a World Champion, they just thought, ‘who is he kidding?’ That was a validation after all the work I did, the hardships I had been through, and with people not understanding what I was talking about and my dream. At the end it was a confirmation that I was not crazy and not a lunatic. I was okay and this is it. So, it was relief and validation. The other point was that even when I was at the top of the world in 1987 and running so well, a lot of people mainly media could not see that I was capable of winning. They could see my talent and that I was dangerous, but They kept putting me down and didn’t give me the benefit of the doubt or the credit to boost my confidence for favoring Steve Cram. They didn’t want to take anything away from Steve Cram and to give it to this guy from a country that was not known to anybody. Even, if there were good things said about me and my talent, it always included the word ‘but.’ But he doesn’t have the experience. Sometimes three ‘buts.’ So, People didn’t give me the credit or respect I deserved. I didn’t take it in a bad way, but in a good way. I felt that I would let them do what they wanted to do and that it would give me less pressure. When I won and showed them what I could do in the race, then they said that I had been capable of winning, though they hadn’t been saying it before the race. They waited to the last second at the finish line. Why did they wait? The media are supposed to be fair. So, it was meaningful for all those reasons.
GCR: The Olympic Games are a definite goal of track and field athletes, and top competitors, such as you, aim for a medal or victory. How disappointing was it to get disqualified in a heat of the 1984 Olympics, miss the 1988 and 1992 Olympics due to injuries and to make the final but only finish in sixth place in 1996? How disheartening was it to not have a true shot at a medal like you did at Worlds?
AB I was very disappointed. However, in my faith we accept that everything happens for a reason and that is what we believe. But when it came to the Olympics, I was very unfortunate. In 1984, I was one the youngest competitor in the 1,500 meters and made the final. They disqualified me when I think I could have been fourth of fifth if I had run the final. In 1988, I was planning on earning two Gold Medals and it was going to be so easy. I could do that just like training and in training I could break World Records. That year of 1988 was an incredible year and I got injured. In my last week of training before the injury we had scheduled four meets to break the World Records of 800 meters, 1,000 meters, 1,500 meters and the mile. They were all set up. Nobody knew how good I was in the 800 meters, but that year I focused on it a little bit. I didn’t have any shadow of a doubt that I was going to break four World Records. I could feel it when I was running and training. It was going to be a piece of cake, a piece of cake. That day, after I finished my training and everything was set up with a goal of four World Records and two Gold Medals, I went to cool down on a grass field and stepped in a hole which broke my leg. For three Olympics, I broke my legs. In 1984 I had a stress fracture when I ran, the bad break in 1988 and a stress fracture in 1992. At least in 1984, I tried to manage. I was in a cast for one month before the Olympics. I missed the NCAA meet because that was the day I got injured. During the 1992 Olympics I was in a cast. In 1996, I was injured with a pulled hip flexor and I could not sprint. During the race, when El Guerrouj fell it kind of messed up the race. My Olympics were bad luck after bad luck after bad luck. The funny thing is that the whole reason I started running in the first place were the love of the Olympics and getting an athletic scholarship. The day I learned about the Olympics is the first day I heard that word. I liked the story that my cousin told me about the Olympics. I asked him when there would be another Olympics. ‘It happens every four years,’ he said. ‘It’s going to be in 1984 in Los Angeles.’ We didn’t have TV in my country, so he was telling me about how the Olympics had been in Moscow and about how this Ethiopian, Miruts Yifter, did what he did in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters on the last lap. He made it exciting when he was talking about it. I got excited and said, ‘Wow!’ I thought it would be neat to go to Los Angeles and the Olympics. So, my whole thoughts of running were the Olympics. And look what happened.
GCR: How did your early childhood with a nomadic family lifestyle instill character traits within you of being tough and working through adversity while living simply and strongly on walks of up to hundreds of kilometers that helped you when you became a distance runner?
AB I absolutely had a strong will and toughness. That is what it’s all about. The nomadic life was very harsh and very tough. The food was scarce at times. We travelled a long way from when I was a baby until I was ten years old. In that ten years I did a lot of mileage. Maybe enough for thirty years. I saw every aspect of harsh life. I have seen large animals. I have done long walks. I have been thirsty for months. Often, we didn’t have water. All we had was camel meat and camel milk. It was very tough. After coming from the life of a nomad, everything in city life seems very simple and easy. People complain about things in city life and all I can say is ‘what are you complaining about?’
GCR: In recent years, you returned to Somalia to encourage progress in your home country in running, fitness and physical education. How well has this effort worked in achieving tangible results?
AB I left the country of Somalia in 1983. I went back for three weeks in 1987. I didn’t go back for 23 years. In 2010 I went back for two years to the northern part of Somalia. It was nice just to see my family. After the civil war, it was a disaster in the country. Millions of people lost their lives, and millions were displaced by leaving the countryside or leaving the country. We lost a lot of family members and relatives and property. Rich people had to start from zero. Everything that many people owned was gone. It was a good chance to see my family members, to assess the situation and to try to help at that time. I stayed two years. In 2017 and 2018 I was in Somalia again for two years. I did what I could. I gave speeches and motivated young people. I talked about the issues that had happened in the country and worked to give people hope that things would change and get better mainly visiting Schools and universities. I encouraged them to not give up. I told them this wasn’t’ the end of the world, we will overcome and there is going to be a better day tomorrow. I was really encouraged by the resilience of the Somali people and the trend the way the young people were thinking. For example, back in 2010 I visited a school called Abaarso school in Hargeisa where we started a running program. The school was established by an American Fellow Jonathan Starr and other Somali Americans. Jonathan is really a guy who deserves an International Award. I was just helping, and we started sending students to America. The first young man we sent graduated from M.I.T. and then we had students who went to Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, and other programs. I oversaw the running program and helped in other areas where I could. I helped with the process of applying for scholarships and coming to America basically assimilating the same way I came to the states. So, it was a great success. A lot of the students have graduated from college and are doing well all over the world. When I was back home for a long period of time, I realized that people are so busy with things that do not interested me, there are terrible politicians and corruption everywhere and safety was an issue. Especially when I went to Mogadishu, the politicians had really disappointed me a great deal and they seem like they have not any interest in youth issues and sports. I couldn’t stay any longer. I wanted to stay but I realized I had left my family in the U.S. and I was risking my life and these politicians didn’t want to listen to what I had to say and the mission of my return home.
GCR: Recently, you moved from Virginia to Minneapolis where there is a large Somalian community. Why did you move to Minneapolis and how rewarding has been your work with the Loppet Foundation to improve the healthiness of the Somalian community and other underserved people in the area?
AB It is very gratifying, and I am very happy to be here. The Loppet Foundation is a great nonprofit organization. They encourage many sporting activities – mainly skiing and mountain biking. Now we have included running. The organization serves all parts of the Minneapolis community. When it comes to Somalis, these people came here as immigrants and now I am helping to educate the health benefits of sports and outdoors activities and in addition now introduce to winter sports like Skiing for the first time a complete strange concept. But first, I must thank Mayor Jacob Frye. The mayor is a great runner who ran a 2:16 marathon. He won the Pan American Games Marathon and was a great college runner at William and Mary. When he was younger, his family’s house was close to my University when I was at George Mason. In 1987 when I won the World Championships, as a ten-year-old kid, he used to come to our track and run with me. He used to see me race. We stayed in touch as he became a runner and then the Mayor. When I came back from Somalia in 2019, since there is a big community of Somalians in Minneapolis, I wanted to visit the community and check out Minneapolis. I called him and told that I was planning on visiting his city. I met him and ran with him. I mentioned that I liked the city, and the Somalians were excited about my visit and were encouraging me to come to Minneapolis. He told me that, if I wanted to come, they would welcome me. The Mayor is good friend of the Somali community and his help make the possibility of my coming here a reality. He supported my program. I now I work with the entire city and all people, but my focus is on helping Somalis. I coach groups of kids from age of six to eleven, from age twelve to fifteen, and the junior competition team from age sixteen to nineteen. I coach some elite guys who run 800 meters in 1:46 and 3:37 for 1,500 meters. I also have adult programs with Somalis and other ethnic groups. The Somalis are understanding the importance of fitness and health and greatly appreciate these programs. Many adults are joining the program and it is fun. When I look back at when I came a year ago, everyone was talking about how miserable the weather was going to be in the winter in Minneapolis and that I wouldn’t be able to tolerate it. But I love it! Loppet is a very exciting organization whose people have so much energy and life. Skiing is very big here. In March of 2020 we were supposed to host the World Cup, but it was cancelled because of covid. The people here love winter and snow. The first time there was a big snow forecasted, people were so happy. All week there was excitement because a huge snowfall was coming. I thought, ‘These people are crazy. I have to take whatever they are taking if they are this excited about winter and snow! I have to do whatever they are doing!’ So, last year I started skiing. I did okay with cross country skiing. I wasn’t great, but I had just started. It was zero degrees, and I was outside for up to three hours. That’s all I cared about, and I was happy. This year, when the fall ended, my Somali groups were wondering what we would do for fitness. For the winter program, I told them, ‘This is ski season, so what are you going to do? Are you going to go back home and hibernate the whole winter in the house? No, it’s not going to happen.’ I put them all in the ski programs – the adults and the kids. We have so many Somalis skiing this year. This has changed the lives of so many people. It has grown their lives and is a huge difference of mindset for our whole community thanks to the Mayor and the Loppet Foundation. I did my best and things could not be better. It is a very exciting time. Now, we just finished the ski season and will start the running programs back for the children, teenagers, juniors, elites, adults and seniors. It’s all about health and fitness and walking and running with conditioning.
GCR: ELITE TRACK AND FIELD COMPETITION Let’s look back at the details of the 1987 World Championships where you won the Gold Medal. First, when you went into the race, what were your race strategies for the different possible early paces and the opponents who required the most focus?
AB Number one – the main focus had always been Steve Cram. He was the defending champion, and he was the guy to beat. In terms of the race, I was ready. If it was a fast pace, I was ready. If it was slow, I was ready. I like to stay behind a bit in the beginning of a race and, usually I do for two reasons. Most importantly, and I don’t know if people know this but, when I am behind on that first lap, it is when I study the race. Always coaches give their athletes running strategies or racing plan – do this, do that, do this, do that – but when the race starts it will go three hundred and sixty degrees the other way. It hardly ever goes the way the coach tells you or the way you plan unless you lead. If you go wire to wire, then that’s easy. But if you are thinking about another plan, you have twelve guys who have 12 conflicting plans. So, it can be a real mess. I had to be ready to study the reality of what was happening. I would be checking the reality of what was going on, what was my plan, and, at the same time, I would have to be able to make the adjustments. The way people lose is that they cannot adjust. Sometimes your plan may work fifty percent, sometimes seventy percent, sometimes thirty percent and sometimes it may work zero. Anyway, that first lap is when I learn everything about what is really happening and what is about to happen. Then, whatever I had in mind and the strengths of the individuals I see during the race help me to formulate a new plan. That is the number one reason I stay behind. The second reason is to stay out of trouble. I have long legs and, usually when I go to the middle of the pack, I have problems, or I fall, or I cannot relax. So, I must stay back or go to the front. So, I studied the competitors in the race, and I was ready for it to go one way or the other. If it went slow, everybody knew I had a better kick than anyone else and that tactic would be given to me. But, even if the race was fast, I was ready and I have proven that.
GCR: As the race played out with a slow pace, even though you and your competitors knew about your kick, did you even surprise yourself by running the last two laps in 1:46 and closing the last 400 meters in 51 seconds? We knew you were fast, but did you know you were that fast?
AB Not really. I was just feeling the moment. But I wasn’t surprised because I wanted it so badly. This was the moment for me and for my country. I had a whole year, an entire racing season, where I was denied running in competitions with these top guys by the race organizers. I didn’t get to run against Steve Cram. This was the only chance I had, the only revenge I had and the only outlet I had. Most runners had choices, but I had no choices. I couldn’t race these top guys because no race officials put me in the races. The media was putting me down and saying that no one was going to touch Cram or some other guys. They said that Abdi had no experience, and we don’t really know how good he is. When I had all these things to overcome, my emotions were high. They stayed high and this was the moment.
GCR: What was the feeling when you crossed the finish line and knew you were World Champion and what are your remembrances of the medal ceremony when you were on the medal stand and heard your National Anthem?
AB That was the most incredible experience of my life. I had so many emotions because this was my dream that people thought would never be realized. But now they could see I was not crazy. I was carrying my dignity and my national pride, and my dream came true. The whole world was respecting my National Anthem. It was so incredible. In Somalia, if a man cries, it is shameful. The biggest thing I was trying to make happen is I did not want to cry. That was the worst thing I could do. I said in my mind, ‘Don’t cry! Don’t cry! Men don’t cry.’
GCR: Three days after the World Championships 1,500 meters, you turned around and raced the IAAF Grand Prix Final, which you won. How was it racing two big races so close together and what can you relate from that race?
AB The World Championship final was on September 6th and, three days later, on September 9th, I raced in Brussels, Belgium, at the Grand Prix Final, which is like the Diamond League of today. In that race I wanted to break the World Record, but that wasn’t only the plan. After world championships, Gonzales the silver medalist, was talking about the World Championship and said, ‘I think if the race was fast, it may have been different because Abdi is a kicker.’ So, those kinds of comments were being spoken. That week I wanted to prove that I could run from either side. I can do whatever I want. When we went to Brussels only three days after I won the World Championship, emotionally I was tired. I was dead. But my guts were that I wanted to go for it. Number one, it was the last race of the season and I wanted to get the World Record – let me try for it. Second, I had to tell everybody to shut up. So, when I went to Brussels it was cold, it was windy, it was raining, it was the nastiest weather for running. And then I started thinking, ‘What am I going to do.’ Then I thought, ‘Don’t change your mind. Just go for it.’ I went for it. Gonzales only followed me for about 800 meters and then he just quit. I won in 3:32. The second place was 3:38 and Gonzales was number eight. That was three days after the World Championship. The 3:32 that night could have been a 3:27 with good weather. It was crazy in that nasty weather. I just put the hammer down and I showed everybody who was the commander in chief. So, I was ready if it was slow or fast and proved it three days after the World Championships.
GCR: Winning the Grand Prix Final in 1987 was one of four times you finished on the podium of the IAAF Grand Prix Final. You earned Gold Medals in 1987 and 1989, a Silver Medal in 1993 and a Bronze Medal in 1994. What were the moves that cemented your victory in 1989 and were the other podium finishes top efforts for you or did you miss out on moves that may have led to two more victories?
AB In 1989 I was basically undefeated though I had a hip flexor injury. I pulled it deeply in the iliopsoas muscle, kind of in the groin area. I was not able to train well or to sprint. But I was still undefeated. My back was also hurting. Even on the day I ran the World Cup when I was representing Africa, I told my alternate to warm up because I was not sure I could race. But I had a very good physiotherapist, Jerry Yanuck. He was working on it and I dealt with it and withstood the pain. When I ran 3:30, a Swiss guy had given me a massage and, after the race he said, ‘If you ran 3:30 with this situation, I could never imagine what you could have run being healthy.’ In the future, every time we saw each other, he would shake his head and say, ‘I cannot imagine what you could have run.’ Anyway, after the injury in 1989, I thought if I rested in the offseason it would get better. But it got worse. In 1990 and 1991 I could not run well. In 1991 I ran a few races and it just got worse. So, I stopped. In 1991, because of that injury, I had to stop running and missed the world championships. In 1993 I came back strong. By then, Noureddine Morceli was number one. When I came back and raced, I would finish number two, number three, number two, number three and so on. In that race in Stuttgart, I even fell in the first-round heat. I had so much blood on my shoulder and on my hip. It was nasty. In that first round I was in the middle of the pack where I told you I get tripped and fall a lot. That was a bad fall. It was with about six hundred meters to go in the race. I got up and people could see how badly I fell and blood on me. I was chasing the runners – chasing, chasing, chasing – and came to the finish line. When they got the times for who advanced to the semifinal, I was the last one at the cutoff to make the semifinal. When I finished that race, I was given a standing ovation. There were three other guys who fell including a German runner who fell with one hundred meters to go and he did not get up. It was amazing for me to qualify. When I had to run the semifinal, I couldn’t even move my arm, but still got through to the final. Then, in the final I finished third and I was very happy. With two years of not running, with the injuries and with the fall, I still finished third. It was huge and I was very happy. So, In Barcelona it was a great race. Nobody could tell I was injured. I was running with a lot of problems, a lot of injuries, a lot of pain and people didn’t know. Sometimes I had a hard time warming up and a hard time starting a race because of injuries but, when the starting gun goes off, I don’t know – I become somebody else. I forget the pain and I just go. That was my friend, Sebastian Coe’s last race. He is a hero and a great guy. He was still running 3:32s, but I beat him in that race. It was a good feeling to beat one of my heroes even though we had raced together many other times before. Even now, he calls me the party spoiler because of the World Cup. The World Championships order of finish was Morceli, Fermin Cacho of Spain, me and then Mohamed Suleiman from Qatar was number four.
GCR: Perhaps your first big medal performance was your Silver Medal for second place in the 1,500 meters at the 1985 African Championships in Cairo, Egypt? How big was that for you so early in your career?
AB I was quite ready because I had run the Oslo Dream Mile in 3:53 for fifth place when Steve Cram broke the World Record in 3:46. When I went to Cairo, it ended up being a funny race. Omer Khalifa, from Sudan, won. We had raced together many times and I was usually ahead of Khalifa. But African meets often have issues and this one did. My race was supposed to be at five o’clock. They changed the schedule, but I didn’t know this. I’m not sure when they changed the schedule because, the last time I checked, it had the race listed for five o’clock. At four o’clock I came to the stadium with my bag, and I was at the athlete’s area. I was thinking that I had an hour to go down to the warmup area to start warming up for the race. While I was sitting there at the top of the bleachers and thinking these thoughts, I saw runners on the track doing strides. I looked more closely, and they were 1,500-meter runners. They were doing strides and the 1,500-meter runners were being called to the line for the race. I jumped from the bleachers and ran to the front of the stadium in front of the runners as they were getting ready to start the race. ‘I’m here! I’m in the race!’ They gave me less than a minute to put my spikes on. I put them on and was there on the starting line without taking one warmup step – only the run from the stands. I had to run the race. Maybe for 10,000 meters you could still run your best, but not in the 1,500 meters. They ran a fifty-seven first lap. In the last one hundred meters my sprint was not there, and Khalifa just beat me to the finish line. I ran 3:35 without one step of warm up. This is one of two times it happened to me that I ran a race without one step of warmup.
GCR: FORMATIVE YEARS AND COLLEGE We chatted about your nomadic family lifestyle for the first ten years of your life. When you moved to the city, in what sports did you participate as a youth and teenager and did your physical activity prepare you for distance running?
AB I played soccer. I became a very good soccer player. I went to the level where I trained with a junior club and moved to the top level with the highest teams in my country. Soccer was everything. Soccer gave me the endurance, the activity, the power, the strong legs – everything. Soccer is a great sport. It is good cross training. When I learned about the Olympics and scholarships and running, I switched and went from soccer to running. I loved soccer and it was my sport. It is still my favorite sport. But I just saw the opportunity in running, though I didn’t like running at the beginning. I hated running to start with. But I wanted to get a scholarship and I wanted to go to the Olympics. That is how I started running.
GCR: How did you get started running regularly and what is the story about you running a fast 400 meters that drew the attention of a local track coach?
AB I hadn’t seen people running and didn’t know anything about running. I was playing soccer and believed in conditioning when I was playing soccer. I was fit and I was not getting tired. I was fast, but still didn’t know anything about running. One day we saw these people running and, just for fun, we went to check it out and to watch them a little bit. Then we asked the coach if this competition was open and if anybody could run. He said they were running four hundred meters and we asked how many laps that was. Then we asked if we could just run. That was without a warmup too. We didn’t know anything, and it was only four hundred meters. I ran and looked good and won. I ran fifty-six seconds. I had a headache, I got sick, and I threw up. That is when the coach insisted that I should run because I would make the team and they would select me and so on. I told him no. I didn’t want to do running, I didn’t like it and I hated it already. This is because of the way I was feeling. When I was there another day, he was asking me where I had been. I told him that I had only run that one race and I was feeling sick. That is when the discussion changed and was about the Moscow Olympics. That is when he started talking about the Olympics. I said, ‘What is the Olympics?’ And that whole conversation is where my interest in the Olympics came from. The coach was begging me to run one more time because they were selecting a Regional competition team. He said, ‘If you run one more time, we are taking the top three. If you qualify and don’t want to run, at least if you change your mind down the road, and we will consider you. Run one more race so we can get you in legally if you ever want to come back and race.’ So, to shut him down I said I would run one more time. I ran that one time in fifty-three seconds and ran into Jama Aden, the best Somali runner at that time, who later became my friend. I knew he was a runner, but I didn’t know him. I cut my time by three seconds and he told me afterward that I looked incredible. He said ‘You have the talent.’ I told him, ‘Go away. I don’t want to hear that.’ He said he wished he could help me, but he was going away to America because he got a scholarship to a university in New Jersey. I asked him how he got the scholarship. ‘Because of my running.’ That’s how I learned about athletic scholarships. He explained to me that if someone runs fast, they can get a scholarship to go to the U.S. I put the two together and thought, ‘Wow! Yesterday a guy told me about the Olympics and today I learned about athletic scholarships. This is a real opportunity and its really worth trying. I’m going to start running now!’ I had only been running three years when I got my scholarship after making the Olympics. It was like that – boom, boom, boom! I heard those two words, I made my decision, I made those my goals and it happened.
GCR: You were still a novice runner when you raced in the 1982 African Track Championships. How amazing was it that you ran a 3:51 for 1,500 meters and did you even comprehend how fast you were with so little experience and training?
AB It was incredible. I had started running the 400 meters, moved up to the 800 meters and slowly up to the 1,500 meters. I had been running the 800 meters and had only run the 1,500 meters one time before that race. What I was worried about was how many laps there were. I had to count the laps. My second worry was that I saw some guys that had good times and had run at the World Class level. I had just finished high school and I knew math well and was calculating the times. Some of them had run 3:38 so I was wondering if they could lap me or how close they were going to come to lapping me. I was thinking about funny stuff. Jama Aden was one of the favorites at that time. He was already living in New Jersey and brought me back some nice Puma spikes that he gave to me. On the first day I was supposed to race, we were warming up and stretching and I put the shoes right on my side and somebody stole my shoes – my best shoes from the U.S.! Nobody had shoes like that, and it was the first time I was going to put them on. And they were stolen. I was at the starting line with no shoes except for my bad training shoes. There was a Sudanese guy who had finished running and who was leaving the track. I asked him if I could borrow his shoes. I am size 10.5 and I think They were size 12. I put them on, and they didn’t help any. But the race encouraged me because, when the race was ending, I ran 3:51 and they ran 3:42. I was only a straightaway. They were right there, and I was watching them. So, when I went back, I started understanding what it would take to run 3:42. It was three laps of one minute, one minute, one minute and then forty-two seconds. We didn’t have good coaches or a good track, but I made all my training one minute, one minute, one minute, forty-two seconds. I knew I had to run 3:42 and I did it soon.
GCR: How huge of an opportunity and change was it for you to come to the United States to run for George Mason University and Coach John Cook? Did you adjust well or was it difficult coming overseas and leaving behind your family, being in a new environment and having to work with speaking English?
AB Speaking the new language and school were both tough. But I was working hard academically and athletically. I was working very hard and only getting three hours of sleep a day. I was working my butt off. But I started during the cross-country season and my teammates and the whole track team and their families were very supportive.
GCR: You won the NCAA 1,500 meters twice, with the first time in 1985 in 3:41.20. What were highlights of that race and was it exciting to bring recognition to your coach, to your university, to you, and to your family back home when they heard about it?
AB I was doing everything I could for George Mason. It was the first NCAA medal for the school. When I came there the program was a very small program. Coach John Cook was still a high school teacher and was working part-time coaching at George Mason. The race was very tactical. It was held in Austin, Texas and it was very hot. For some races I didn’t warm up because the schedule was changed, and I didn’t know. For this race, I didn’t want to warm up because it was so hot. Five minutes was enough, more than enough. I ran comfortable and just wanted to win. Then after that things started happening for George Mason’s track team and Coach Cook left the high school and we became a team to be reckoned with very suddenly.
GCR: Two years later you won the 1987 NCAA 1,500 meters title in a fast 3:35.79. Did the leaders taking it out in 57 seconds and then Villanova’s Gerry O’Reilly taking you through 1,200 metes in 2:58 just set it up for your kick and a three second easy win?
AB They were trying to push and to maybe take some of my kick away. It was also hot. It was the same weather as in Austin, Texas. That weather was very tough. Gerry and some other guys really pushed the pace. That 3:35.5 was the second fastest NCAA Championship time ever behind Sydney Maree 3:35.2 or .3. The race was very competitive. Gerry O’Reilly and the others up front did a good job and had nothing to be embarrassed about when the guy who beat them would soon be World Champion.
GCR: You won many conference titles at George Mason. Were any of them memorable for a surprise tactic by an opponent or a tight finish and was it nice to contribute big points to your team total?
AB Every race I was trying to win whether it was 800 meters, 1,500 meters or a relay to give the team everything I could, all the points that I could. All the races had lots of memories. People always remember the good races, but the bad races sometimes become the good races. There are two races I remember the most. The first time I came to the U.S. it was almost cross-country season. I came in July and now it was August. We had started cross country training. I was a 1,500-meter runner with low mileage. It was also finished the month of Ramadan and I was fasting. I wasn’t ready for cross country because I had never run long in training. The coach showed me only one guy and said, ‘See that guy. Just follow him.’ I didn’t know we were going to run up hills, down hills, through valleys and a river. There was mud and it was nasty. That guy just took off. He didn’t wait for anybody. I looked around and the guy the coach had told me to go with was gone. And no one else was going with him. So, I went with the guy and stayed with him and stayed with him and stayed with him. We came out of a big hill and I was right with him. I was dying but after the hill I heard yelling, ‘800 meters to go, 800 to go!’ Somehow, I passed out. That was my last memory. After two hours I opened my eyes and I saw that I was laying down and I had so much ice on top of me. The whole team and the coach were standing around me and I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know what was going on and asked what happened. They told me that the last 800 meters I was zigzagging and I was falling. I finished the race, but I don’t remember that entire 800 meters. They said I was staggering, going this way then that way, zigzagging and somehow came to the finish line, finished the race and collapsed. I have no recall and no memory of what happened in that 800 meters. That cross country made me tough.
GCR: What was the second memorable race?
AB In 1984 we were going to the 1984 NCAA Championships in Syracuse. The day before our team was leaving, I had an exam, and we asked the teacher if I could have a makeup exam. And he said, ‘No, you have to have your exam.’ It was at three o’clock in the afternoon and then the coach wanted me to head straight to the airport. I studied for my exam, took my exam, went to the airport and it was snowing. The snow was so huge that somewhere between the school and the airport we could not move. The airport was closed. We could not even come back to the university because the weather was so nasty. But then the coach remembered that some teammates lived close, and we went to their house. We stayed with them and I got sick somehow. I was throwing up all night. We left in the morning for the airport for Syracuse. I was sick and throwing up the whole time. It was the worse shape a human being could be in. We got to Syracuse and went to the stadium and my race was about to start. The coach told me, ‘Just go and lay down somewhere.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? I have to run.’ He said, ‘How can you run? You are throwing up? You’re sick. Look at you! Lay down!’ I told him, ‘No! I’m running!’ I ran the race and had no energy. I was sick and had a headache. I felt like my eyes would pop out and my brain was on fire from the fever. I could not turn on my kick. I had no energy. I had no plan and was just running. I stayed with the other runners to see what would happen. I miscalculated the laps and, with two laps to go, I thought there was one lap to go. If it were my choice to use my kick, I would have waited to the last one hundred meters or the last straightaway. But I didn’t have any energy or speed because I was sick, so I decided to take off with one lap to go. With what I thought was one lap to go, I kicked. After that one lap, they told me I had another lap to go. I had gone crazy with two laps to go. I took off and was leading. I kept going and kept going and kept going and it was the closest photo finish in a 1,500 meters you could ever see in your life. All eight guys were in a photo finish. They all caught me, and I ended up number eight in the last two steps. I was in the middle leading and it was incredible. Two things happened from that race. I got the respect of the coach. He said, ‘You are a crazy lunatic.’ He never thought somebody could do such a thing because he was with me the whole day of the exams and sickness. After that, he never questioned anything about me. Now he knew that if I said I was sick, maybe he would have to call the funeral home (laughing). The way I ran that day, he knew that if I said I was sick, it meant I was very sick. I had memories from that race that kept me going in other races. Every time I had a bad pain, I remembered that race and that day. I told myself, ‘Listen, if you could do what you did that day, you can do it again.’ So, the 1984 NCAA Indoor Championships at Syracuse was an incredible race.
GCR: We haven’t spoken about relay races such as the Penn Relays and other big meets. Do you have any big memories of relay races where you were anchoring and brought home the win?
AB We won the sprint medley and were always near the top of the distance medley.
GCR: TRAINING AND COACHING What was your progression in base building weekly mileage through your college years and afterward?
AB I didn’t increase my mileage. First, during my entire career I had problems with injuries. I don’t know the reason, but I had many injuries. That led me to be a low mileage runner. Number two is that I was doing so well with my small mileage, that there was no real need for more.
GCR: What were some of your favorite training sessions for race tempo and for speed?
AB I didn’t focus on the specific workouts. In general, I focused on what did the most for me. For example, when I was talking about soccer, I worked on fitness and conditioning. I worked hard on fitness as there needs to be a big focus there. A lot of distance runners are not fit. They think because they are running a lot of mileage that they are okay, but that is not the case. You must also be fit. The area I love the best is running hills. Hills were everything for me, especially when we were in Africa where we didn’t have a gym or modern facilities. The hills combine everything you need. When you run hills, there is speed, there is resistance, there is endurance, there is power. Hills are really all you need. So, I was big on hills.
GCR: It’s interesting how you mention hills so strongly, because when I interviewed Henry Rono, the great runner from Kenya, several years ago, Henry emphasized that we should run hills – long hills, short hills, gradual hills, steep hills, but whatever you do – run hills. Do you believe in the basic philosophy?
AB Yes, it doesn’t matter if it is gradual, long, or short – the hills are everything. The hills encompass everything – power, speed, resistance and endurance. Everything is there. Hills are very important.
GCR: When you were doing track workouts, were there any you liked like repeat 400s or cutdowns of 200s, 150s and 100s or anything else that let you know you were ready to race strong?
AB We did 600s, 400s, 300s, 200, and they were big for me same as mile repeats etc. What was very important for me was rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. Running is a rhythm. People need to understand about rhythm. It’s like when I talked about focusing on running 3:42 pace for 1,500 meters. It was three laps at one minute and forty-two seconds to the finish. Unless you get that rhythm right and understand your pace, you do not understand running. I was gifted and understood rhythm well. When I was doing 400s, I could say I was going to run one 400m in 52.2 seconds, not 52.3 or 52.4 seconds, and somehow, I had to get that rhythm and understand pace. The other important thing about pace and about rhythm, is relaxation. Being able to run with relaxation is everything. When you are running, you must be relaxed. You must understand relaxation and train for it. When I was training with Joachim Cruz, when we were running 200s. He was a guy who could run 22s. I think the fastest time I ever ran for 200 meters was 23 seconds. I have good speed, but mainly what I focused on was running 200s at a certain time of 25 seconds or 26 seconds or 27 seconds with relaxation. I liked to make 25 second pace look like 28 seconds by being relaxed. Instead of struggling to run 23 seconds, I liked to make the 25 second 200s comfortable. So, when I was running 25 seconds and if you weren’t timing me, but just watching me, you would think I was running 27 or 28 seconds because I was running relaxed. Then, if you timed me you would be surprised that it was a 25 second 200 because I was running with relaxation.
GCR: What else, in addition to rhythm and relaxation, is key to superior performance?
AB Understanding rhythm and the rhythm of relaxation is a big key. The other area I use when I am coaching that I worked on for myself is the kick and of course Mental Toughness. Kick doesn’t just come but takes work. Of course, some runners are more talented than others, but everyone can work on it. If you make a habit every time you are finishing a run or some running with effort, you can pick up the last ten steps. Making tempo changes rather than one pace helps. My mental toughness comes mainly from my nomadic life when I was young and that is everything. Seventy percent of running is mental, and thirty percent is physical. That is absolutely true. You must believe in yourself. You must have confidence and work on your mind. You must focus on your mind.
GCR: As you started coaching others, how did your experience with overtraining or undertraining, injuries and mental focus help those you coached to skip some of your own learning curve?
AB I’m big on emphasizing conditioning and fitness. Even though I don’t have a degree for physiotherapy, I am a good physiotherapist. I have learned and have my athletes work on being fit and in condition and doing exercises like stretching. I stress strengthening and stretching and flexibility and take lots of injury preventive measures. I’m that guy who started with meditation and yoga in 1986. I believe good nutrition helps. Integration of all these is good. I like things that are not normal. In 1986, people thought I was crazy. When I was first doing yoga and meditation a long time ago, it was unusual for a guy from Africa to be doing these things. One must find what works him or her. My flexibility was bad, and the coach put me in ball dancing one time. It was not fun and on the European circuit running tour I was known as the only black guy who couldn’t dance.
GCR: What do you find to be similar and different in coaching elite runners, sub-elites and recreational persons?
AB I do enjoy coaching all levels of runners. To compare, the elite athlete is more exciting as we accept the challenges of trying to reach their goals on the highest level. So, in that sense, it is stimulating to embrace the challenge. When I’m coaching adults and youths and children, there is the same enjoyment, but it is a sense of satisfaction and of joy rather than excitement. What I teach the recreational runners is to try to understand the fundamentals of running. I remember back in 1997 when, for the first time, I was coaching a group of marathoners. I asked them what they did for training. Their answers were all about mileage. I asked some questions. ‘Do you do any track workouts?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you do flexibility exercises?’ ‘No.’ All they knew was to run. Running, whether you are an Olympic athlete or a recreational runner, takes many things to get better. If you are not working on turning over your wheels and your turnover and your rhythm and your speed, if you are not doing track workouts, if you are not doing hills, if you are not going to the gym especially as you get older, you can not be your best. What the older runners need the most is to improve strength, flexibility and little bit of speed. They must do cross training. Too much mileage with nothing else is going to stop their improvement. I developed a program for the adult group. When we started doing some yoga classes and light track workouts and flexibility exercises, they could see a change. A guy who had been running eight-and-a-half minute miles was running them for 5k,10k, 15k and a half marathon. He had the same rhythm. After we worked on the track with speed work and drills and flexibility exercises, he and others got faster. Wow! His 5k was at seven-minute mile pace and his 10k was at eight-minute mile pace. So, that is what I was teaching that they should have different gears for different distances. They had thought I was crazy when I had them doing yoga but, after a while, some of the women asked me if I could suggest to their husbands that they do yoga. They started realizing that they had been wrong about many training aspects.
GCR: Can you tell us a bit about coaching in La Grange, Georgia in the mid-1990s and, in particular, about Gilbert Tuhabonye, who escaped from the Burundi genocide and wrote of it in his autobiography, ‘This Voice in my Heart?’
AB He is an incredible guy. Before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics I went to La Grange to train at a pre-Olympic camp. After the Olympics I retired, and the head of that program called me to see if I wanted to coach. I agreed and started a coaching program. Gilbert and another three Burundian runners were among the first I coached there. We were getting athletes from all over Africa, South America and Asia. All were from developing countries. The one who initiated getting the Burundi runners was the current President of Burundi track and field, Kwizera Dieudonne, a great half-miler who was my assistant at the time. We heard about Gilbert, who was a good runner and the only one of two hundred kids to survive a burning building by getting out of the window. We brought this group and we adopted Gilbert into our program. He didn’t have a scholarship from the Olympic Solidarity. We moved to Savannah and I was the middle-distance coach. Then the head coach, who was a sprint coach, left and I became the head coach. When we were in Savannah, Gilbert stayed for one year. I started looking for scholarships for Gilbert because he was running well. I called different places and, finally, Abilene Christian offered a scholarship. That is how he went there. Before that his story was out in the public eye and he went to the White House to meet the President. He was a superstar. He was the only survivor of that genocide at his school, we share some history, and we are still in touch.
GCR: WRAPUP AND FINAL THOUGHTS From your many years of racing, who were some of your favorite competitors in college and on the professional racing circuit due to their ability to give you a strong race and bring out your best?
AB When I came to the circuit in Europe, it was the British guys. They were dominant. It was Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett and Steve Cram. There was such a rivalry and the mile belonged to Great Britain. That was the fight. If we look back now at the times runners are running in the 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters and the marathon, they are incredible. But, if you look at the quality at the top, the 1,500 meters was the best in our era. It was the toughest. That was a time when there was really a competition. In the U.S. there was Sydney Maree, Steve Scott, Jim Spivey and there were so many other great milers. Great Britain took it for granted as it was a closed environment for them. It was like they were thinking, ‘Don’t even come anywhere near us. This is Great Britain’s event.’ The first article that came out from Great Britain on September 7, 1987 was, ‘ Bile Coup Ends British Rule.’ So, I was against that dynasty. That was the goal – everybody was going after Coe and Cram and Ovett. They were the one target, and it was a great era for the mile. That generation of milers had a mile reunion in Monaco a year ago and it was incredible. I raced against these guys and I loved them because they were the people who inspired us, and the milers were a small family community. From Roger Bannister to John Landy to Herb Elliot to Peter Snell, Jim Ryun, Kip Keino, Filbert Bayi, John Walker, Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram – all these guys are heroes and a good group of people. What an incredible group of people, what an incredible event and what an incredible ride we had.
GCR: Sometimes the success of our children and those we coach is more rewarding than our own success. How exciting has it been to watch the success of those you have coached and your children, especially your oldest son, Ahmed’s, great running achievements?
AB It is always incredible to see people who have the discipline and the courage, who respect me and who get something great out of this. It is very satisfying, and I am very proud of all the people I coach and what they have accomplished. I am very proud of my sons who were running. It is such a good experience. When I was coaching in the Middle East, we were with the athletes the whole year. In the Gulf Countries of Arabia, the weather is very hot, so we weren’t there most of the time but spent time in camps. We were training in Europe for sixth months, then four months in Ethiopia etc. When I was coaching in the Olympic Training Center in Savannah, it was the same. We had young people who left their families in South America and Africa. When I was coaching and with the programs I was handling, I became a father and a mother and a friend and a role model and a coach. I would wear so many hats. I earned the trust and the respect of these athletes and did my best to help them grow, succeed and to have a better life, not just in running, but as people.
GCR: You mentioned earlier that you have taken up skiing since you moved to Minnesota. What do you typically do now for health, fitness and running?
AB I love running, but my knees are killing me now. The doctors are telling me it is time to stop running and to do biking and swimming. But I don’t want to listen to them. I’m not big on going to the gym. I do a little running and some conditioning. Every day I do pushups, sit ups, squats and planks very easy routine. All in all, I’m fit. I love sports and I coach, so I am always with active people.
GCR: When you are giving a speech and people are looking to you for advice or inspiration and you sum up in a minute or two the major lessons you have learned during your life from the discipline of running, being a part of the running community, and overcoming adversity, what you would like to share with my readers that will help them on the pathway to reaching their potential athletically and as a person?
AB Number one is that for everything you want to do, you must have a purpose. I was carrying my entire nation on my shoulders when I was representing Somalia. So, I had to carry the national pride. I had so much pressure and it was worth it. That purpose kept me going because it was a good cause. There was a great reason I was doing what I did. If you don’t have a purpose, it is easy to quit. We are always asked, ‘Why are you doing this’ and ‘What does this mean to you.’ So, have a good purpose. Number two is that I truly like to encourage people to reach their potential. Don’t compare yourself to anybody. Some athletes who were very good in college stop running after they graduate. What is waiting for them when they stop? Somehow, they tell themselves that they are tired, or they are discouraged, or they think they will never get to where they thought they could go. I believe employment and work is going to wait for you forever, but this is one-time chance. So, if your best time in the 1,500 meters is 3:40 and your potential is 3:38, please don’t stop until you hit that 3:38. Whatever is your potential, get to it. You will have to work the rest of your life, so get to your potential. One day later in your life you will appreciate it. One more thing I just want to tell people is to understand and appreciate the opportunity. When you are running, it is not all about winning and losing. When you retire, like me now, I’m not thinking about the races I won and the races I lost. I don’t think about the World Championships. What I think about at the end, and the most important things that I treasure, are the places I have been to and the people I have met down the road and the friendships. It’s not the running – you have to enjoy the whole experience and the journey. People and places and friendships – that is where the bus stops and what you will treasure the rest of your life.
  Inside Stuff
Hobbies/Interests I appreciate fitness, nutrition and outdoor activities. I just started to ski last year. I just bought roller skating shoes and I want to try that this summer. I want to do anything that seems to be fun and things that I didn’t do when I was a nomad in Somalia (big laughter). I like anything that has to do with health and fitness and fun. I am writing my book and am almost done. You already got everything in this interview (laughing)
Nicknames I had a thousand nicknames, but nothing big that stuck. One that wasn’t a nickname, but that was funny happened when I first came to the U.S. They asked me my first name and my middle name, and I didn’t understand and told them ‘Abdi’ for both. So, they wrote down ‘Abdi Abdi.’ For one year, I was ‘Abdi Abdi’ and became famous and known as ‘Abdi Abdi.’ After one year I understood and had my coach and student advisor use my full name of ‘Abdi Bile.’ So, I became ‘Abdi Bile.’ Years later someone was talking to me and said, ‘You’re from Somalia. I wanted to ask you something because there was this guy, Abdi Abdi, who was a great runner. I haven’t seen him anywhere. What ever happened to that guy?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, Abdi Abdi, I remember that guy. I haven’t seen him either. He went home and he never came back.’ (more big laughter). I didn’t want to say that it was me. So ‘Abdi Abdi’ was very famous for one year, my freshman year in college
Favorite movies I’m not a movie watcher
Favorite TV shows I like comedy and laughing. I watch all the crazy comedians
Favorite music I listen to Somali music. I love Somali music and am in love with patriotic and nationalism kinds of songs. Those are the kind of songs I want to listen to right before a race
Favorite books I read the Quran every day. It is the greatest book and would advise everybody to check it out. I like Steven Covey’s ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,’ ‘Think and Grow Rich’ and books like that. In general, I read books which are motivational and give you little bit of structure and principles to live by
First car My first car shows how I learned the hard way of the American system. I had raised eight hundred dollars and one of the George Mason assistant coaches told me he was selling a car. I bought the car from him for my eight hundred dollars. I was still working to get my driver’s license, so somebody brought the car to me. I was getting my license and getting ready. When the car was coming down the road from the coach’s house, it started smoking. I went back to the coach and said, ‘Hey coach, the car is not working.’ He said, ‘You bought it.’ I went to Coach Cook and told him I bought a car from this other coach and it was not running and having problems. I told Coach Cook that I asked for my money back and the coach wouldn’t give it to me. He couldn’t do anything because I bought the car from the other coach, so I found out some things about how the system works in America the hard way thought I thought that was a daylight robbery
First Jobs I didn’t work as a teenager. I started playing for a soccer club and then was running. So, I was getting a very decent salary from the clubs when I was 17 and 18 years old. I was having a good time. I could eat all the spaghetti and ice cream I wanted and go to all the movies
Family My father, God bless him, passed away in 2001. My father and my mother and my family were nomads. The nomadic people are very nice people. The life is a struggle, but they are very kind and take care of you. It was a good life because the people have so much respect for each other, respect for the culture, respect the values, and respect their neighbors. They never lie or do anything bad. Nomads are people with good qualities and are very pure in their whole life – wonderful people. My uncle was in the city and he was a police chief. He is the one who brought me from the nomadic life and put me in a Quranic school. He is the one who raised me after age ten. He was a disciplinarian because he was a policeman. Our household life was very strict, very clean and very disciplined. We had to get up at four o’clock. We had to make our bed in the morning. We had to be clean and healthy. Everything was proper and we ate a very nutritious good diet. With the quality of the nomad life and then that added disciplined, controlled environment of my uncle’s system and way of life was a good combination of two lifestyles that gave me the background of my discipline, character and integrity that I needed as a person. My uncle is the one who encouraged me into sports. He was a believer of sports making a young person healthy and strong. He felt sports could protect you and prevent a lot of problems like drugs, laziness, and other bad habits. That is how I was raised. I had a wonderful family on my uncle’s side, my mom and dad, and a lot of brothers, sisters and cousins. We had a huge family and that is how we grew up. In our country of Somalia, family is everything. Elders are well-respected. Here in the U.S. I have a lovely wife, Shadia, and three children, two boys and a girl. My two sons ran, Mohamed in high school and Ahmed for Georgetown. Mohamed is going to Virginia Tech and Ahmed graduated from Georgetown, is working, and we have been blessed
Pets We had a hundred camels when I was a nomad, so the small camels were my pets. The little baby camels were pets. We are not big fans of dogs. I wish we had camels here
Favorite breakfast I eat a lot of wheat products like grains and quinoa
Favorite meal In Somalia, our favorite food is always the camel meat and camel milk. My favorite food in the western world is salmon. I love salmon. Sometimes, I just want to go to Norway and to have salmon. I want to go there for just that reason
Favorite beverages I love camel milk, but a liter costs twenty-five or fifty dollars in the USA now. Since I can’t get camel milk, I mostly drink water. I don’t drink any other beverages that much. I have a juicer machine and make carrot juice and beet juice and orange juice. I may make a juice drink with peaches and oranges and carrots and celery and have it juiced in a minute. I actually have two juicer machines and a good blender to make smoothies that are very good nutrition with strawberries and raspberries and blueberries. I add seeds and nuts like walnuts and almonds and pumpkin seeds. My whole shelf is nuts and good nutritional foods
First running memory Until I ran that quarter mile race in 56 seconds that I told you about, I didn’t know anything about organized running. We were travelling as nomads for hundreds of kilometers. It wasn’t running all the way. But my whole early life was on my feet
Running heroes The first time when I was in Africa, my cousin told me about Miruts Yifter. I also knew about Abebe Bikila. He was the first to start the movement of great runners in Africa. Then there was Kip Keino and Miruts Yifter and other guys. When I started learning about running and my event, as I was telling you, without saying anyone specifically, it was the whole line of milers – Roger Bannister, John Landy, Herb Elliot, Peter Snell, Jim Ryun, Kip Keino, Filbert Bayi, John Walker, Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram – it was all those guys. When I arrived in the USA for the first time, the first race I saw on television was the 1983 World Championships in Helsinki. I saw that race and I told myself, ‘My gosh, if this is the World Championships, I’ve got to win the next one in 1987. That was when I started learning about the mile and each of these men inspired me. I was in awe and wanted to be like them. The guy who created the track and field program in Somalia and the scholarship to send Jama Aden to go to the U.S. and who opened our eyes to understand about scholarships and going to the U.S. was Mal Whitfield, who won Olympic Gold medals at 800 meters in 1948 and 1952. He deserves the credit for all the Africans who are winning Gold Medals and all the powerhouse of African athletes. If anybody deserves the credit, it is Mal Whitfield. He went to Africa in the 1960s and early 1970s, started track and field programs and showed athletes how to come to the U.S. for scholarships. After that, Lee Evans and other top runners followed Mal Whitfield to Africa to help African athletes. Our entire Somali athletics program, the whole concept and all the credit is due to Mal Whitfield. We owe him a lot. He is an incredible guy. He Coached I think more than nine African countries. He was also a big supporter of the programs we had in the U.S. in La Grange and Savannah
Greatest running moments Every race has its memories. The 1987 World Championships, winning the IAAF Grand Prix Final three days later in Belgium, and the two NCAA Championships – absolutely are at the top. In 1984 at the Olympics, I had a broken leg and had a cast that was taken off right before the Olympics. I was also one of the youngest athletes in the race, and no one knew me. To make the semifinal and the final – all those guys I was running with did not know me. How could there be somebody that they had never seen, and they had never run with be right there in the final. Almost everyone who raced with me – Sebastian Coe, Steve Scott and Steve Ovett – asked me, ‘What is your name? Where are you from?’ I told them, ‘Somalia.’ They asked me ‘Where is Somalia.’ I ran 3:35 that day in the semifinal and that was my big PR. Could you have imagined if I had been in the final and had finished in fourth or fifth place? But there was that disqualification
Worst running moment There isn’t one I can specifically think of
Childhood dreams When I started in sports was when I started dreaming of being Olympic Champion and World Champion. That was only when I went to the city
The other Abdi When I met Abdi Abdirahman, he was a youth who was a novice runner and I got him some running gear. I told my brother to give them to him and tell him to keep it up. Tell him I said, ‘Good job. Keep going. I’m very proud of you.’ So, that’s how he started running with my brother Jama Bile who went to Northern Arizona and my nephew Ibrahim Aden George Mason but that time they were in a community college in Arizona. That is how he became a runner. In 2000 when he was trying to qualify to the Olympics, he had missed by some months to be a U.S. citizen. I was calling Craig Masback and asking him if there was any way Abdi’s citizenship could be expedited so he could go to the Olympics. And it ended up happening
Funny memories one Mal Whitfield was an energetic guy. He was giving a speech before the 1996 Olympics and the topic was jet lag. He was supposed to talk about jet lag and, with people coming to the Olympics from Europe and Australia and other places, how long it takes to adjust and acclimatize. That was the scheduled topic. He said, ‘Listen, in 1948 we were put on a boat to go to England, and it took us one month to get there. That was one month on a boat being seasick. We could not run. We did pushups and high knees. That is what we did for one month. Then we got to the 1948 Olympics and started the competition. You are flying first class for six hours from London, and you are complaining about jet lag? That is nothing. Shame on you guys. Human beings have become so soft.’ Anyway, he was a great motivator
Funny memories two There was one day when I was racing in Switzerland. Right before my race was the 3,000 meters and it was the funniest race I had ever seen in my life. There was one Kenyan in the race. When the race started, the Kenyan was in front. The whole group saw this Kenyan guy and they assumed he was good. They all sat behind him and the guy ran about eighty seconds on the first lap, and nobody passed him. After six hundred meters and before two laps were done, they realized this guy wasn’t going. He was basically walking. They were almost walking behind him. And they took off. They lapped the guy. After the race we asked the Kenyan guy, ‘Excuse me, what do you run? Are you a runner or what do you do?’ ‘No, I’m not a runner. I go to this University and saw the people running, so I just came to run.’ The race officials didn’t ask him anything. He was a Kenyan who wanted to run so they put him in the race. Oh my gosh!
Funny memories three There was one day when I was racing in Switzerland. Right before my race was the 3,000 meters and it was the funniest race I had ever seen in my life. There was one Kenyan in the race. When the race started, the Kenyan was in front. The whole group saw this Kenyan guy and they assumed he was good. They all sat behind him and the guy ran about eighty seconds on the first lap, and nobody passed him. After six hundred meters and before two laps were done, they realized this guy wasn’t going. He was basically walking. They were almost walking behind him. And they took off. They lapped the guy. After the race we asked the Kenyan guy, ‘Excuse me, what do you run? Are you a runner or what do you do?’ ‘No, I’m not a runner. I go to this University and saw the people running, so I just came to run.’ The race officials didn’t ask him anything. He was a Kenyan who wanted to run so they put him in the race. Oh my gosh!
Favorite places to travel I have been to a lot of countries in this world. My favorite two countries are Switzerland and Australia. Number one is Switzerland. I love the U.S. and I liked San Diego, where I lived for a year-and-a-half. My Coach, Luiz de Oliveira, told me the whole team was moving to Albuquerque to high altitude. I was the first one to move. Then, he told me they changed their minds and were not moving. I had already moved out by mistake and never went back there. That was the end of being in San Diego, which is a beautiful city