Meb Keflezighi, U.S.A. marathon Olympic silver medalist and San Diego High grad, was runner-up in the 1993 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships at Morley Field. (Kirby Lee/USA Today)
This article has been updated to correct the name of the 1993 winner.
SAN DIEGO -- Talk to America's finest distance runner, Mebrahtom Keflezighi, and he'll tell you he actually has won two Olympic silver medals.
The one everyone knows about is his second place finish in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games marathon. His second? The 1993 Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships.
"That was my Olympics for high school," said the runner known as Meb of his performance as a San Diego High senior when he finished second to Adam Goucher. "My goal had been to win section, state and the Nationals.
"Running in the Foot Locker Nationals was a magical moment, really. It was and still is the only real national high school championship, where all of the best come together. I'd been dreaming of running at Foot Locker ever since my dad took me to Balboa Park."
Meb had been reunited with his family in the eighth grade after they were forced to flee the African nation of Eriteria and they settled a half-mile away from the park.
They'd go to play soccer on the weekends.
"I remember I saw people running and I asked my dad 'what were those crazy people doing, where was their soccer ball'?" recalls Meb as if it were yesterday. He also went and watched races and before long he was the one doing the running -- without the ball.
As a junior, he placed 10th in the Western Regionals and at that time only the top eight advanced. He missed by three seconds, but instead of being depressed, he set out to achieve his three goals as a senior, accomplishing the first two before finishing second in what was his home course.
Not that he had any sense of failure.
"These are the best runners in the nation, which means I was the second best runner in the United States," he said of the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, which will be contested Saturday over the Balboa Park 3.1-mile course. "That day Adam was better. I gave it my all and was able to celebrate not only finishing second in front of my home crowd, but winning the team title for the West.
"The whole experience was magical. Staying at the Hotel Del Coronado -- that's the signature hotel for San Diego. Getting a bag of sport gear. My uniform. The lifetime friends I made. I didn't let it detract from my goal, though, which was winning."
Meb stayed with the pack and then made a very bold move into the lead about halfway through the 3.1-mile race. He had hoped to open a gap no one could close before he headed up the Upas Street hill for the last time but Gaucher, who was running in his third Foot Locker Nationals, not only matched the surge, he went past Meb going up the hill.
"He was really strong," recalls Meb of Goucher's move, "and I knew because of the move I made, I couldn't close the gap. Then I raced for second place. It was such a wonderful time, the crowd cheering and my dad lifting me up on his shoulders after the race, saying 'I'm so proud of my son.' I was ecstatic and I'd run a faster time than I had on the same course in the sectionals. I always looked to improve."
Goucher won in 14 minutes, 41 seconds to Meb's 14:53.
Part of the championship experience included meeting world class runners like Kip Keino and Eamonn Coghlin. For others, it might have been the culmination of their careers, but for Meb, it was just the start as he went on to win an NCAA cross country championship for UCLA, capture three U.S.A. National titles and stamp himself as the nation's top marathoner, not only finishing second in Athens and fourth in London, but becoming the first American to win both New York and Boston, the latter one year after the Boston Marathon bombing.
"I think I appreciate running in the Foot Locker Nationals more each year," said the always-friendly and smiling Meb. "It's hard to believe it was 26 years ago. Running in the event where Louis Quintana and Melody Fairchild had run. I have come back as often as I can -- I had to miss in 2008 because I was recovering from my injury -- because it still means so much to see these great runners."
Meb was asked what sage words of advice he might offer today's runners.
"Tell them to relax and have fun," he said. "You're here to improve. You are one of the best in the nation, no matter where you finish. You have the talent or you wouldn't be here. Be humble and thankful, it's such a high honor.
"Also consider where you are. I've been to the meet when it was in Florida. I've run in London and all over the world. But San Diego is very special, there are only a handful of cities that have weather like here and the crowd support that comes back year after year.
"Enjoy it, it's a wonderful event and there is nothing else like it."