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Olympic Trials: Weini Kelati Realizes Olympic Dream 10 Years after Leaving Eritrea

Posted by: Semere Asmelash

Date: Monday, 01 July 2024

Olympic Trials: Weini Kelati Realizes Olympic Dream 10 Years after Leaving Eritrea

Our live blog is tracking the daily results from the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon

2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field - Day 9Weini Kelati at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field - Day 9/Getty Images

Day 7 Update

Ten years ago, Weini Kelati arrived in Eugene, Oregon, for the World Junior Championships and never went home.

As a 17-year-old coming from her native Eritrea, she had ambitious plans to run a strong 3,000 meters, but she was also intent on staying in the U.S. to escape the political oppression of the Eritrean government. She finished eighth in the race that day, but wound up defecting from her home country by connecting with family members in Virginia, where her running career started in earnest.

On Saturday night in Eugene, she reached her next big goal of becoming a U.S. Olympian by winning the U.S. Olympic Trials 10,000 meters in 31:41.07.

“It’s crazy because I get pretty emotional every time I come here to run because I have all the memories of when I left my family, but not this year,” Kelati said. “I just wanted to come out here, focus on my race, and just perform well. This year I was working mentally just to get prepared, and it worked out. I can’t really process it all now, but I will soon. Right now, I just can’t believe it.”

Collegiate star Parker Valby of the University of Florida turned in her best race of the trials, snatching up second place (31:41.56) in an all-out sprint that ended in a photo finish with Nike pro Karissa Schweizer (31:41.56). Kelati is the only U.S. runner in the field to have already surpassed the Olympic-qualifying standard, but Valby and Schweizer have not and will have to wait to see if they’ll earn Olympic team berths based on their world rankings.

EUGENE, OREGON - JUNE 29: Silver medalist Parker Valby, gold medalist Weini Kelati, and bronze medalist Karissa Schweizer pose with their medals after competing in the women's 10,000 meter final on Day Nine of the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Track & Field Trials at Hayward Field on June 29, 2024 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)Parker Valby, Weini Kelati, and Karissa Schweizer pose with their medals in front of a replica of the Eiffel Tower after competing in the women’s 10,000-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Trials (Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Becoming an American Runner

Kelati excelled as a distance runner since she was a high school runner in Virginia. In 2015, a year after arriving in the U.S., Kelati helped her team to win a state cross country title, and she also won the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in San Diego, one of the pinnacle events of high school distance running.

U.S. Olympian.

Kelati became a naturalized U.S. citizen three years ago this month, but she also dropped out of the 10,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials later in same month because she wasn’t yet prepared to run at that level. Three more years of hard work under coach Stephen Haas has helped her become one of the best distance runners in the U.S.

Before the Olympic Trials, she was the second-ranked U.S. runner in the 5,000 and first in the 10,000, but she opted to only run the 10,000 to give her the best shot at qualifying.

Although she’s able to talk and text with her family regularly, she has only seen her mom once since she arrived in the U.S. in 2014. She was able to reunite with her mom for the first time in eight years during a three-week vacation to Uganda in 2022. She still hopes to see other family members in the future, but she doesn’t know when or how it can happen, given that she can’t return to Eritrea. But for now, she continues to savor her weekly phone calls, the conversations of which are like a lifeline of reassurance and serve as powerful motivation to keep moving forward.

“I’ve been telling them one day I’m going to go to Olympics,” Kelati said. “It’s been hard here without my family, but I’m so proud of myself that I was able to come here and make the team. I can’t want to share it with them.”

Weini Kelati at the US Olympic trialsWeini Kelati at the US Olympic trials

“I get very emotional, and it affects my race," Weini Kelati said of returning to the spot in which she defected to the United States in 2014. "This time, I’ve been saying: ‘I’ve got to become a new me. Forget all the past and focus on the present.’” (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
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