American runner Weini Kelati's Olympic journey from Eritrea to Paris is a childhood dream in the making (2024)

Before Weini Kelati was running 10,000 meters to a finish line, she was running long distances to school in Eritrea.

Born in Tsada Christian, a small village in the central region of Eritrea, Kelati, 27, said it wasn't unusual for kids to walk four to five hours to get to school every day — or to run, if they were tardy.

Running would eventually take her far beyond the African country to Oregon, where her journey to become an American Olympian started 10 years ago and where that dream was cemented last month with a first-place finish at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials.

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Kelati’s father died when she was young, and she watched her mother struggle to raise her family. She knew she wanted to help her, but the "how" didn't become clear until middle school.

"In sixth grade I was in a PE class and sitting down and watching what everybody was doing," Kelati said. "And my teacher comes to me and he said, 'You need to run because that’s how you earn grade.'"

Kelati was confused — after all, she had run to school earlier that day and was sore. But her coach told Kelati to run as fast as she could, and she uncovered a hidden talent, outrunning her classmates and even older kids.

Kelati started competing, but to her, the sport was always about more than just winning a medal or getting on a podium. It was a way to help her family.

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"Even though the life I had was a very hard one, she wanted me to stay close to her," Kelati said of her mother. "She was just like: 'It doesn't matter. If we didn't have anything, I just wanted you to be with me.'"

Eritrea gained its independence four years before Kelati was born, after a decadeslong war with Ethiopia. It is one of the least developed countries in the world, according to the United Nations, and one of the most repressive, restricting freedom of expression, opinion and faith, according to Human Rights Watch. The country has never held elections.

Kelati said that when her running prowess took her to the World Junior Championships in Eugene, Oregon, in 2014, she saw an opportunity to stay in the U.S. and help her family from abroad. Afraid of being stopped, she didn't tell anyone about her intentions.

Seeking asylum

Kelati beat her personal record during that race. Her mind, however, was not on crossing the finish line, but on an Eritrean flag she saw from the stands.

Eritreans are a tight-knit community. An Oregon family who had heard about the Eritrean athletes competing in the event came to the track to cheer them on.

Kelati saw their flag and ran to them. She said she told them she wanted to stay in America and asked them for help.

"Back home it's very safe to just go with any family and ask them like, 'Hey, can I stay with you?' It’s fine," Kelati said. "Here I thought it was the same thing the first day when I landed, but it wasn’t."

After they realized Kelati was serious about staying, the family agreed to help. They bought her a cellphone, which she used to call home and tell her mother she was seeking asylum in the U.S.

"I had to call and tell her when I made my decision," Kelati said. "I let her know. And she cried a little bit. But that was OK."

It would be eight years before Kelati saw her again.

Through a relative, Kelati found a cousin she didn’t know she had in Leesburg, Virginia, who took her in. She said she told her cousin she wanted to find a job to help her mother, but her cousin insisted that she should enroll in school.

She could get paid to run, her cousin told her, if she worked hard in high school and earned a scholarship to college.

Eventually Kelati gave in, enrolling in Heritage High School in Leesburg. Even though she didn’t speak any English, she soon found a home on her track and field team.

She was recruited to the University of New Mexico, where she won the 2019 NCAA Division I cross country championships, and she eventually went pro.

Back in Eugene

In 2021, a couple of days before the trials for the delayed Tokyo Olympics, Kelati got big news: The country that she had sought refuge in was claiming her as one of its own. She was getting U.S. citizenship.

In the excitement of becoming a citizen, Kelati said, she didn’t sleep well or account for the heat awaiting her during the trials that year. She was forced to drop out almost three-quarters through the 10,000-meter race, watching her Olympic dreams for Tokyo fly away.

Kelati said she was frustrated, but in the three years since then, she has changed her mindset. She said she tried to stop focusing on results, instead learning to trust her training. When the 2024 trials rolled around, she found herself on the track in Eugene again.

Kelati said she blocked all the memories that usually come flooding back when she is in Eugene and focused on the race. One foot after the next, she ran the 10,000 meters for half an hour at a steady pace.

As she neared the last few laps, it was clear she was in the top three —necessary to secure her Olympic spot —but, she said, her competitive spirit took over. Kelati pushed and outran Parker Valby and Karissa Schweizer, momentarily falling back into second place but ultimately beating them by tenths of a second to take first place.

American runner Weini Kelati's Olympic journey from Eritrea to Paris is a childhood dream in the making (1)

Kelati is Paris-bound, but her job isn't done.

"I just want to race hard and have the best results in my life," she said. "I wanted to be one of the runners that I used to watch in TV, you know?"

Even though she will compete in red, white and blue, Eritrea remains close to Kelati's heart. The close-knit Eritrean community that as a young girl helped her navigate a foreign country and find her way to Olympic glory has rallied around her. In the days since the trials, she said, she has heard from Eritreans all over, cheering her on.

"I'm so thankful for everyone that supported me and followed my journey," she said.

Ten years after her journey to become a U.S. Olympian began, Kelati thinks back to when she was in middle school and saw, for the first time, Olympic runners crossing the finish line.

She’s one of them now, and she hopes she will be an example to people watching her.

"I hope this inspires them," she said. "If you don’t give up on what you wanted to achieve in life, I know you can live your dream one day."

Raquel Coronell Uribe

Raquel Coronell Uribe is a breaking news reporter.

American runner Weini Kelati's Olympic journey from Eritrea to Paris is a childhood dream in the making (2024)
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