‘I don’t look at myself as an old man; I want to win gold!’: Team USA’s 43 year old Abdi Abdirahman9 min read
- Abdi Abdirahman, 43, will become Team USA’s oldest Olympic marathon runner
- The athlete’s story began when his large family fled Somalia due to the civil war
- Abdirahman’s first ever serious run came in 1999 – a year before Sydney 2000
- The Somali-born runner competed in Sydney and Tokyo is now his fifth Olympics
- The 43-year-old is a training partner and close friend to Team GB’s Sir Mo Farah
- Team USA’s top 10 medal hopes at this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo
- Find out the latest Tokyo Olympic news including schedule, medal table and results right here
As Abdi Abdirahman prepares for his fifth Olympic Games, there’s one catchphrase in his conversation with Sportsmail that the 43-year-old keeps repeating.
‘Age is just a number, but I don’t look at that number,’ he insists from his home in Flagstaff, Arizona . ‘I don’t look at myself as an old man. I want to win the gold in Tokyo – everyone should say that.’
The Team USA marathon runner is eyeing up several records in Tokyo this summer. Not only will he become America’s oldest Olympic runner in history, but he is part of a marathon team that is 50 per cent African American – never before have the United States put forward three BAME athletes for the race.
The old age tagline that is accompanying Abdirahman with these Games irks him a little, but not too much. The 43-year-old has enjoyed being counted out due to his age, even though he truly believes he has a chance of a podium finish.
He claims: ‘People always say: “You’re old, you can’t do it.” I say: anything can happen. I’m going to prepare myself the best I can and I will give it 110 per cent and hopefully I can get a medal.
‘We have people in the race who are favourites and overwhelmingly favourites, that’s true, but there’s a reason they run the race. It’s not just for people to show up, they have to perform.
‘You should never write yourself out definitely, I want a medal and I want the gold one.’
Abdirahman’s first Olympic Games were in Sydney 2000, where he finished tenth in the marathon, and he is still up for the challenge today. He managed two 15th-placed finishes in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, while injury scuppered his chances at London 2012 and Rio 2016.
But the runner’s journey to the Games stands out just as much as his age will on the start track in Tokyo.
A 13-year-old Abdirahman and his family fled Somalia when the civil war broke out in the 1990s. The northern region of Mogadishu, where he and his family were based, was one of the most dangerous regions at the time of the crisis.
‘To be honest looking back, it was a nice village where I would play with my friends, he recalls. ‘It was a normal neighbourhood, we played football, went to school. We did the normal things that normal kids do.
‘You then don’t know where you’re going, you don’t have a plan. You don’t know where you’re going to be tomorrow, or even five years. That was the hardest.’
Abdirahman’s parents left their house with a jug of milk, a jug of water and five kids in tow towards safety. Abdi’s mother was five months pregnant at the time and was struggling with the smoke in Mogadishu due to the war.
The family travelled 300 miles south to the city of Kismayo before choosing to leave Somalia after a few weeks when it appeared the war was not stopping soon. Abdi had contracted malaria on the way.
They travelled to Kenya via a small boat and Abdi’s mother gave birth to a ‘miracle baby girl’ on arrival. They spent a short amount of time in a refugee camp in Kenya, before finding a home in the capital, Mombasa.
‘We were not in the refugee camp that long, then we went to the city. It was a difficult time – it wasn’t something that we want to look back on a lot, but we always talk about it.
‘It’s a part of my life that I look back on where I don’t take anything for granted now. Thank God we had an opportunity to come to the US after a period in Kenya.’
Abdirahman arrived in America with little sporting background. His only experience of running was playing in a hide and seek game in Mogadishu with his friends, and playing football (soccer) in the Kenyan refugee camp before picking it up in Arizona.
‘I hadn’t done any sports competitively when I arrived in the US,’ he claims. ‘I didn’t know anything about running. Getting into athletics just happened accidentally.’
Everything changed when he started the University of Arizona in 1999 and spotted the running track whilst sitting in the campus cafeteria. Completely uninterested in sports and about to head home, Abdirahman saw a fellow student struggling around the track and decided to give it a go.
The Somali-born youngster was wearing regular clothes, including Rockport work boots and jeans, and the coaches dismissed his chances of being a fast runner very quickly. How wrong they would be.
‘I saw one of the guys was running the 30,000 meters,’ Abdirahman remembers. ‘He was dead last and everyone was laughing at him. And I thought, “If that guy can run, I can run.”
‘I asked the coach, Jim Mielke if I could run. He said, “Have you ever run before?” I said, “No, but I’ll just try it.”
‘He said, “Ok, just go.” He never looked at what I was wearing and I started running with the guys and I finished second in the practice run. I guess you can call it a natural talent.
The following weekend, Abdirahman won his first collegiate 5,000m race at the Jammin’ Invitational. The following year, he represented Team USA at the Sydney Games and became the tenth-fastest marathon runner in the world.
The runner is now a four-time national 10,000m champion and was inducted in to America’s Running Hall of Fame in 2012. Such a rise is unprecedented and unique in sport – but success, as it often does in this industry, never lasts.
Abdirahman withdrew from the London 2012 marathon with injury and a left calf problem ruled him out of Rio 2016. Dejected and considering retirement, a fellow Somali-born runner offered him the helping hand to get back on track. His name? Mo Farah.
The pair have known each other since 1999 and come from the same Mogadishu region. Their close friendship has never wavered in over two decades.
After the Rio setback, Abdirahman finally succumbed to Farah’s requests to become training partners. Farah invited his close friend to train with him near Addis Ababa in Ethiopia along with fellow Olympian Bashil Abdi, a few athletes from Djibouti and some local runners.
‘My cousins knew his brother, and when we found that out we became so much closer. Our friendship just built and it was like a big brother, younger brother type of relationship.
‘I needed a change – I thought I was at the end of my career and needed something new. I just wanted to enjoy life, to travel round the world and I had never been back to Africa.
‘Mo invited me to come and train with them in Ethiopia, it was a great opportunity and a great group of people. I went there in 2015 and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It just rejuvenated me, it was a new atmosphere, new training group, new everything.’
The American opened up on the jovial atmosphere within the running group, with Farah the biggest ‘comedian’ out of all the runners. The Team GB star calls him ‘old guy’ due to his slow walking pace and the fact he often forgets his keys.
‘We have a lot of nicknames and that’s what makes the training camp fun,’ he says. ‘It’s a bunch of guys always joking around and making fun of someone. Mo is just like that, he’s the comedian of the group.
‘He’s always giving people nicknames and making fun about how people run. Some people shuffle their feet, some people twist their arms in a funny way. He treats everyone in the right way and we get some laughs out of it.
Farah is not the only British runner Abdirahman is close to. He has also known fellow veteran runner Chris Thompson – who recently qualified for Tokyo 2020 and will compete in the Games at the age of 40 – for 15 years.
‘I was so chuffed to see him accomplish qualification,’ Abdirahman says. ‘We’ve been through the same pathway, we’ve had a lot of injuries and people count you out.
‘When you have that opportunity and you have a group of people who believe in you: your family, friends and coaches and that’s all you need.
‘You also need the people to count you out. That’s what happened to Chris, because he’s run the marathon so many times and he could have retired a few years ago when we having the bad times.
Abdirahman is also close to Team GB’s Chris Thompson (above), 40, who will race in Tokyo
‘He kept working hard and that has been rewarded in the trials. It could not have happened to a better person than Chris to be honest.’
So, what is the secret for the ‘Golden Oldies’ marathon runners like Abdirahman and Thompson?
‘It’s about how you prepare yourself, it’s not about getting better with age, Abdirahman claims. ‘Also you have to be motivated and you have to want to do it and believe in yourself.
‘When you get older it’s hard, it’s not easy to maintain your weight. It’s so much easier to gain. It takes a little bit longer to get in shape too and I’ve learned that the hard way – especially in the last few months.
‘It used to take me three four weeks of light training to get back to a normal weight. Now it’s taking me two or three months.’
As Abdirahman looks ahead to what appears to be his final Olympic Games, he’ll look back at his career where he has defied age, athletic logic and his own body at times. The only other question is: can he make one more upset and medal?
Abdi Abdirahman’s autobiography, ‘Abdi’s World: The Black Cactus on Life, Running, and Fun (Soulstice Publishing LLC) will be released in August
1 thought on “‘I don’t look at myself as an old man; I want to win gold!’: Team USA’s 43 year old Abdi Abdirahman”