Running Man: Guor Marial
An Olympian without a country
Marial experienced the worst of humanity, watching his village in Sudan burned by soldiers, being kidnapped and held as a slave. And he also experienced the best, finding support and the love of an extended family in a new and strange place — Concord, NH. At 16 he spoke no English, but he learned quickly and impressed many on the Concord High School running team, going on to glory at Iowa State University and the University of Arizona. And in August Marial ran the biggest race of his life, competing in the marathon at the London Olympics.
He qualified for the games in his first-ever attempt at the marathon, but almost didn’t get to go, since he’s not a US citizen. Representing the current government of Sudan was unacceptable and would interfere with his refugee status. The new nation of South Sudan, where his allegiance would rest, is not yet recognized by the International Olympic Committee (OIC), but in a last-minute maneuver headed up by Senator Jeanne Shaheen of NH, Marial was accepted by the OIC as an independent athlete who would run under the Olympic flag. No telling how he did in the race as this is going to press before he runs, but those who know and love him say Marial is already a winner in their books.
You lost much of your family when you were just a boy. Sudan is a war-torn part of the world. Do you have any good memories of it?
Yes I do. Those are the memories I keep but I would rather not talk about them and just talk about the sport.
I hear you qualified for the Olympics in your first marathon. That must be unusual for a runner.
Not really. Runners often go out and run their first marathon and do even better than my time.
The marathon is about endurance. Do you think the troubles of your youth helped to give you endurance?
I would think so. As a child growing up we were more active most of the time and walking, walking, walking. I think that's what had a big impact in my endurance.
What were your impressions of NH when you first arrived?
Well, everything was different – the culture, the language and making friends. It was a completely different world – a new world to me. There were a lot of challenges but ones I was looking forward to – to learn how people treat each other and how people live. It was very exciting with everything going on at one time. And the people were just amazing. When I moved to Concord they were so supportive.
When your uncle left the state, you were in high school and chose to stay with people in NH. Do you keep in touch with them now?
Yes, the Ford family, the Cofrins and the Thaniels – I do keep in touch and I still consider them all a part of my life and my family.
It sounds like NH played a role in getting the IOC to let you enter the Olympics, true?
That is correct. Sen. Shaheen of NH she stood by me and wrote a letter to the IOC. The whole community – the family I mentioned and the Concord community – were unbelievable. All the people from Concord High, people who knew me, were standing by me. They made all this possible.
Competing as an independent athlete will set you apart from most of the Olympians. Will that offer you a psychological advantage or will it hurt your chances?
I would say it's different. Some will see me differently, as a person with no country, but I know when it's over I won't see myself as different. I'll think of myself as South Sudanese. I won't feel different or feel bad. I want to be a symbol of South Sudan and of refugees all around the world by getting an opportunity to be in the world community. That's a big point of pride for me. It will be a special feeling carrying that heavy pride and responsibility. It's a great thing to show the people of South Sudan, and people who have lost hope and have fear, that if they do something no one will stand with them – This will show people that you can do something if you work hard and that if let people help you, you can overcome your dream.
Down the road do you see yourself as applying for US citizenship or waiting for a possible return to S. Sudan?
I'm currently a green card holder and a US resident. That's a question I will be looking at closely, hopefully becoming a US citizen and then I will go on from there.
Since NH has no athletes in the summer Olympics, would you mind if we imagine that you are also representing us here in the Granite State?
When someone asks me where I'm from, I always say New Hampshire. I will represent all of you, the whole New Hampshire community.
You are living in Flagstaff, way across the country. What do you miss most about life in Concord.
The climate and the beauty. Spring was my favorite season. And I do miss Bagel Works a lot. I used to go there every morning and get some nice bagels.