Tuesday, June 20, 2006 | Imagine a wide-eyed, 10-year-old kid discovering the Western world’s modern conveniences while newly arrived from Civil War-torn Eritrea in East Africa. He had been living in a Sudan refugee camp with his mother, brothers and sisters while his father worked in Italy until he could unite the family.

Meb Keflezighi, the American 2004 Olympic silver medalist from San Diego High, was that 10-year-old kid two decades ago. As he settled into his father’s apartment in Milan, Italy, he noticed a box with flashing pictures and people moving and talking.

“I didn’t know what it was,” Keflezighi said. “I went behind the TV screen to see where the people were coming from.”

If that makes you smile inside, how about this: Twenty years later millions of Americans watch Keflezighi’s image run across the screen as an medalist in the Olympics or as a pitchman on television commercials.

His latest commercial is for MasterCard. When you’re the first American male to win an Olympic medal in the marathon since Frank Shorter in1976, there’s a market for you to sell on the expensive advertising medium of TV.

“I remember watching Magic Johnson and other great athletes on TV,” Keflezighi said. “They were making plays and seemed untouchable. They were heroes. You’re thinking, ‘This can’t actually be live.’ It’s funny now for me to be on TV.”

Keflezighi (pronounced Ka-FLEZ-ghee), third in April in the Boston Marathon with best finish by an American in 21 years, is back on the track Thursday in the 10,000 meters in the USA Track and Field Outdoor National Championships at Indianapolis.

Meb is a three-time national champion in the event and has owned the American record since 2001, with a time of 27 minutes, 13.98 seconds. A fourth national title in the 10,000 isn’t something Keflezighi takes lightly, even though many American athletes will because 2006 isn’t a World Championships year. The rewards aren’t what they will be with a berth on the U.S. team in the 2007 World Championships or the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

“A national title is always a great honor,” Keflezighi said. “I work very hard to try to do the best I can to represent the U.S. In anything I do in life I try to do the best I can.”

Keflezighi became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1998. He competed in his first Olympics wearing a red-white-and-blue uniform in the 2000 Sydney Games when he was a finalist who finished 12th in the 10,000 while competing with the flu.

Four years later he qualified for the 2004 Games in Athens in both the 10,000 and Marathon, but Meb and his coach, Bob Larsen, the legendary track coach whose career began at Monte Vista High and Grossmont College before he retired as UCLA’s head coach, decided to focus on the marathon.

Many U.S. Olympians have won medals as naturalized citizens, but Meb’s story isn’t to be confused with established world-class athletes who married an American or came to the U.S. to train and stayed.

There are some narrow-minded Americans who devalue Keflezighi’s success as an American in the marathon – he seems to be always establishing “a first by an American male since …” They consider his true identity an African living in the United States.

But they’re wrong to think that way. Keflezighi may not be American-born, but he’s American-bred.

He came to the United States as an 11-year-old and first learned track in a middle school physical education class. In seventh grade, Meb earned an “A” in his class by running a mile in 5:20. As a San Diego High senior in 1994, Keflezighi won CIF state titles in the in 1,600 and 3,200 meters. He earned a scholarship from UCLA and was a four-time NCAA champion under Larsen’s tutelage.

Meb is just as much an American athlete as Chargers offensive tackle Roman Oben, who was born in Cameroon and learned football as a kid when he came to the United States.

He’s just as much an American athlete as his San Diego High classmate, Stephen Neal, the three-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots. He didn’t learn wrestling until high school yet became a two-time NCAA heavyweight champion and world champion before starting his NFL career.

Meb’s All-American success story begins with his family arriving in San Diego from Italy in 1987 and his father driving a taxi to support his brood.

Meb, who earned his UCLA degree in communications, and his siblings have taken advantage of their education opportunities. Recently, Meb and his family opened the Rainbow Supermarket at 47th and Federal. Older brother Aklilu, who has an MBA degree, runs the store.

Fitsum works as an electrical engineer in San Jose. Meb’s younger sister, Dr. Bahghi Keflezighi, is a UCLA School of Medicine graduate and is in residency at Scripps Memorial Hospital in Chula Vista.

Bemnet earned a business degree from UC Santa Cruz. Merhawi is Meb’s agent and graduated in May from UCLA law school.

Younger siblings are in college, high school and middle school, and Meb says his father and mother, Russom and Awetash, have more time to watch over them since his father no longer needs to drive a taxi.

The younger Keflezighi generation includes grandchildren. Meb and his bride, Yordanos, had their first baby, a girl, when Sara was born in March.

The Keflezighis are living the American dream. When Meb competes in a red-white-and-blue uniform, what could be more American? Think about that the next time you see him on TV – competing or pitching products.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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