BOSTON — This is a story that starts in Adi Beyani, Eritrea, and in St. Petersburg, Russia. This is a story that ends at the finish line on Boylston Street.
From Hopkinton east, the Boston Marathon measures 26.2 miles. Meb Keflezighi's journey, Tatyana McFadden's journey measure thousands of miles and, one day, this story of champions will be best measured by generations of their American families.
Meb Keflezighi is an immigrant.
And so is Tatyana McFadden.
We are a nation of immigrants. On a Patriots' Day, when words like "Boston Strong" and "America Strong" were repeated time and time again, washing over a sea of 32,408 runners and hundreds of thousands of spectators, we would be wise to remember that. It is our greatest strength.
"I'm blessed to be an American," Keflezighi said after he became the first American man to win the marathon since 1983. "God bless America. God bless Boston."
Keflezighi's father, Russom, walked 600 miles through Eastern Africa to Sudan, reading tiger tracks and dodging hyenas, in search of a better life for his family. Russom supported Eritrean liberation from Ethiopia, a fight that would last 30 years before independence was reached in the early 1990s. Young Meb saw death and he saw limbs blown off by land mines. There is a famous story about how he ran the first time he saw a car when he was 10. Meb was certain the rolling machine would kill him.
Meb didn't see his father, who made it to Italy, for five years. Russom finally saved enough money to fly his family to Milan. A year later, when Meb was 12, the family moved to San Diego, moving in with Russom's sister. Meb was an outcast. He dressed badly. He didn't speak the language. One day, in answer to a seventh-grade contest, Meb put down his soccer ball and ran a 5:20 mile. He got the most precious of commodities. Respect. By the ninth grade, he had run a 4:22 mile, and by high school graduation, on his way to UCLA, he had a 3.95 GPA.
After he crossed the finish line Monday, in 2:08:37, becoming the first American to win Boston, New York and an Olympic marathon medal, Keflezighi was celebrated as an American hero. Less than a month shy of his 39th birthday, Keflezighi went out to a huge lead and held on, fighting pain, fighting the urge to vomit, to become the oldest Boston winner since 41-year-old Clarence DeMar in 1930. James P. Henigan was also 38 when he won in 1931.
He raised his sunglasses in the final yards of his victory, pumped his fist and made the sign of the cross as he crossed the finish line and fell into the arms of 1983 champion Greg Meyer.
"I cried last year," Keflezighi said. "I cried this year. This time, it was tears of joy."
A year after Boston had been terrorized by two bombs set off near the finish line by two brothers from a foreign land, there could have been no greater moment for history to define the 118th marathon than Keflezighi draped in the American flag.
At once, it was the greatest act of Boston strength and American defiance, of Boston spirit and American community. Some, of course, chose to fill social media and comment sections of the Internet with claims that Keflezighi wasn't American enough for their taste. Too African. Too foreign a name.
Nitwits. Meb Keflezighi is America.
So is Tatyana McFadden.
She was born with spina bifida. Abandoned by her birth mother, subsisting in a Russian orphanage that could not afford a wheelchair, Tatyana walked on her hands until she was 6. She was told she wouldn't live long. Deborah McFadden, a single mom visiting St. Petersburg as a commissioner of disabilities for the U.S. Health Department, fell in love with the little girl. She adopted Tatyana. On Monday, that once-forgotten girl celebrated her 25th birthday with her second Boston Marathon wheelchair victory in a row.
"It was an absolutely wonderful day," McFadden said. "The last three miles, you couldn't hear yourself think. You just took in the energy. I didn't know whether to cry or yell. There was so much emotion out there."
Keflezighi, who became a naturalized citizen in 1998, ran with the name of the four victims written on his race bib. Three died and 260 were injured in the marathon bombings. MIT police officer Sean Collier was shot and killed in its aftermath as two brothers, Chechen siblings who refused to believe in what is good and right in our nation of immigrants, tried to flee their evil. Martin Richard, who once made a sign that would touch the heart of America, was among the dead. He was 8.
His sister Jane, now the same age, was placed in a medically induced coma in an attempt to save her leg shattered in the bombings. Doctors could not, and it was amputated at the knee. Jane underwent 14 surgeries before she walked again on a prosthetic leg she calls, "Luvvy."
"I met with their family two nights ago," McFadden said. "Martin's dad said, 'Please run for our family. Run for Martin.' I promised I would. Today was a dedication to Martin and his family.
"When I went to their fundraising dinner, I was sitting up front. Martin's sister just ran up to me and went, 'Hi! I'm Jane.' It was just so wonderful. She was full of life, so full of energy. She understands what happened and that she has a new leg. She's so excited about life. It brought so many emotions to me."
Jane told McFadden how she loves basketball and loves to run. She's a good swimmer, don't you know? And she's in a dance class.
"She grabbed my phone," McFadden said. "I brought my medals from Sochi [Paralympics] and the London Marathon and she took a couple of selfies with them. She told me she's an Olympian and I said, 'You definitely are."
Keflezighi raised $10,000 for the Martin Richard Foundation.
"At the fundraiser, his dad introduced himself," Keflezighi said. "My wife cried. I was emotional. I put my arm around his shoulder, I said, 'Sometimes we can't explain why it happens. My wife says even young people, sometimes they have their served purpose here.' Martin, to have that sign, 'No more hurting people. Peace,' says it all."
Keflezighi fought to contain his emotions.
"He was beyond his years," he said. "I have an 8-year-old daughter. It could have been her. It could have been wife or my parents or myself."
Injured last year, Keflezighi was in the grandstands near the finish line watching the race. He sat there in the sun. He took lots of pictures. He had to do a recap of the race for Universal Sports. He left the stands for the Fairmont Copley. Five minutes later, he heard a noise and then another. He didn't know what it was. The world soon found out.
"After the bombing and every day since, I said, 'I want to come back and win,'" Keflezighi said. "The Red Sox won it and put the trophy right there [at the finish line]. I wanted to win it for the people."
Spurred on by the enormous crowd that male wheelchair winner Ernst Van Dyk called the "human tunnel of emotions," Keflezighi said he thought about what he had read in Bill Rodgers' book "Marathon Man." He thought about Aerosmith's "Dream On" Marathon tribute. He thought about how he was dropped by Nike and, without sponsorship, considered retiring. Skechers signed him, and don't you think Nike wishes it had him today? The rest of the time, well, he prayed.
"This is beyond words," Keflezighi said. "The fans were phenomenal. They used me. I used them. I was chanting, "USA! USA!' The people in the medical tent just kept saying, 'Thank you. Thank you.'
"Today is where the dream and reality met."
It was Emma Lazarus who wrote the words mounted on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she with silent lips. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
On a Patriots' Day in April, a year after we saw the worst of humanity, a boy once lost in a war-torn African nation and a girl once left to walk on her arms in Russia — two Americans — lifted the lamp and opened that golden door. We saw the best of us.