BOSTON — Meb Keflezighi fled the East African nation of Eritrea as a 12-year-old boy, coming to the United States to escape war and poverty. Tatyana McFadden was 6 and sickly when an American woman adopted her from a Russian orphanage.
They are now U.S. citizens, and Boston Marathon champions.
“Don’t they really capture what the American dream is all about?” Boston Athletic Association president Joann Flaminio said on Tuesday. “It’s about coming to this country to make a better life for themselves. And, boy, what a better life they made.”
Ever since the bombs exploded at the marathon finish line last year, there has been a nationwide rally of support for the city and its signature sporting event and a call to return to the streets to reclaim the freedom that was threatened by the attacks.
But the prospect of an American running down Boylston Street to break the tape this Patriots’ Day was seen as the ultimate expression of resilience.
“Everybody talked about how this was very necessary,” Keflezighi said Tuesday at the traditional day-after news conference that was canceled last year. “To do it in Boston after what happened last year, I couldn’t ask for any better.
“America gave me the opportunity; America needed somebody,” he said. “And I rose to the occasion.”
No American runner had won the Boston Marathon since 1985, when Lisa Larsen-Weidenbach took the women’s title two years after Greg Meyer won the men’s. (The U.S. has had better luck in the wheelchair division, which McFadden won for the second straight time.)
The three decades of domination by the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners has been distressing in U.S. distance-running circles, but the drought became a national concern after last year’s bombing.
Since then, there has been much talk about what an American victory would mean in this year’s race, and Shalane Flanagan — a three-time Olympian from nearby Marblehead — vowed to win it for her battered hometown.
But the victory went not to the local favorite, nor to Ryan Hall, who ran the fastest marathon ever by an American on this course in 2011. Instead, the cathartic win came from a San Diego resident who studied the Boston course by talking to four-time winner Bill Rodgers and reading the memoir of the man known as “Boston Billy.”
Ernst Van Dyk of South Africa won the men’s wheelchair event, and then McFadden rolled down Boylston Street all alone to guarantee that the “Star-Spangled Banner” would be heard in Copley Square a year after terrorist bombs killed three and wounded more than 260 others.
McFadden, who turned 25 on race day, was born with spina bifida and had no wheelchair as a child, so she learned to walk on her hands. Her mother, Deborah McFadden, was the commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Health Department and visited the orphanage where Tatyana had been sent.
“I was 6 years old and extremely sick, with a short life expectancy, and my mom gave me the opportunity,” said McFadden, who moved to Baltimore and eventually went to the University of Illinois, the home of eight-time Boston wheelchair champion Jean Driscoll. “For me, it was extremely important to get involved in sports. It was a way for me to get better.”
After receiving her trophy, McFadden gave the winner’s olive wreath — gold-plated for the first time this year, as a gesture of support from Greece — to Carlos Arredondo, the cowboy-hatted hero who helped the wounded at the finish line last year.
Flanagan ran a personal best and finished seventh as Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo earned her second straight women’s win — and third overall — and a chance to celebrate the victory she couldn’t in 2013.
Minutes later, Keflezighi pumped his fist and crossed himself as he ran down Boylston street to chants of “U-S-A!” Two U.S. flags were raised above the victory stand for the two American victories, and the “Star-Spangled Banner” echoed over Boylston Street not once, but twice.
“America really did want it,” said McFadden, who raced in a shirt honoring Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy killed in the explosions.
Keflezighi, who wrote the names of the four killed in the bombing and manhunt on his bib, said that everywhere he went in Boston people came up to him and thanked him. President Obama sent his congratulations on Twitter, and a call was being arranged so the two could talk Tuesday.
Keflezighi’s eyes widened with excitement as he thought about talking with the president. “I’m going to say thank you for the opportunity that the land of the U.S. has given me,” he said.
At almost 39, Keflezighi is the oldest Boston Marathon winner since 1931, and the victory caps an already-distinguished career. A four-time NCAA champion, he took the silver medal in the Athens Olympics in 2004 and won the New York race in 2009.
But even as the world acknowledged his place as one of history’s great distance runners, his New York victory was met with skepticism from internet commenters and even some members of the media who said the former Eritrean “wasn’t American enough.”
Flaminio scoffed at the idea.
“You are a beacon of what it means to be an American,” she told him on Tuesday. “It was the right person for the right time.”