Abdi Abdirahman, seen here winning the 10,000-meter run at the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials, qualified for this year's Olympics in the marathon.


I knew Abdi Abdirahman was smiling, because, well, he's always smiling.

But maybe I missed something, obscured by the spoon bringing miso soup to his lips or the fork delivering the contents of his salmon teriyaki bento box.

Abdi was smiling, but he was fired up, too, over lunch last month. Like Michael Jordan, with gritted teeth masking determination.

"Like most sports, when you get to a certain age and you're not running well, but the people don't know what's going on with you, they think you're done," he said. "That your good days are behind you."

For all of 2010 and the first half of 2011, Abdi couldn't train because of a stress fracture in his left femur. He tried golf and lifted weights at McKale Center - "I know everybody there, from Greg Byrne to the janitors," he said, and of course he does - but fell out of the national conversation.

When he signed up for January's Olympic marathon qualifier in Houston, Abdi said with relish, he wasn't on anyone's list of contenders.

Then he finished third, with a time of 2 hours 9 minutes 42 seconds, to make his fourth U.S. Olympic team.

The first three Games came in the 10,000 meters, but the marathon berth - making him one of five Tucsonans ever to go to four Games - was by far the most amazing.

"This was the sweetest Olympic qualifier for me," the 35-year-old said. "I've been counted out, I've been doubted.

"The best thing for me was I've seen a lot of people eat their words."

The day before he left for London, he and I settled for a sushi joint in the Foothills.

I figured I was the last guy in Tucson to meet Abdi in person.

Every description of him always comes with adjectives: gregarious, fun-loving, playful. Tucsonans call him by his first name only, an honor reserved for the Lutes and Gabbys of the world.

Everyone I know who has bumped into him - at a basketball game or the store or in his stops at Tucson High, Pima College and the UA - walked away with a smile.

Even his nickname, "The Black Cactus," reinforces his ubiquitousness. (He's far more native to us than The Big Aristotle's "Shaqtus.")

Abdi has stayed at the Olympic Village in all four Olympic trips. The guy speaks five languages - English, Swahili, Arabic, Somali and "a little bit of Spanish." Can you imagine how many friends he's made there?

Before the Beijing Opening Ceremony, he found himself chatting up Kobe Bryant, Coach K and former Suns coach Mike D'Antoni.

"D'Antoni knew I was from Arizona," Abdi said with a wry smile. "He read the papers."

Abdi tried to qualify for this year's marathon - with the 10,000 as a backup plan - on the advice of coach Dave Murray.

"The older you get, you don't always have the speed you used to have," Abdi said.

He figures he'll run on the marathon circuit after what is likely his last Olympics.

"No one's guaranteed to go back to the Olympics in four years, no matter how old you are," he said.

"Tomorrow's not given. Tomorrow is a check that you never cash."

He's not conceding Sunday's race, though. Finishing in the top nine would be his best performance at the Games.

"If I didn't like my chances," he said, "I would have stayed home."

Instead, he spent the year running 20 miles a day through the Foothills or in his high-altitude camp in Flagstaff.

He ran without headphones - "In case there's a car, in case there's a bear, in case there's a crazy person," he joked - and got lost in thought instead.

He visualized London's streets, landmarks and fans.

And, eventually, the medal ceremony.

If his mind wandered for long enough, lulled by the pounding of his shoes on pavement, he could hear the national anthem.

"You get all hyped up," he said, "and then a tear comes down your face."

It'd be a heck of story, wouldn't it?

A running, crying, 35-year-old proving his doubters wrong. With a smile.