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Originally published Monday, July 7, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

U.S. Track and Field Trials | Three track athletes born elsewhere exhibit the best in the American spirit

Sometimes all of us need a trio of naturalized citizens to realize what this country is meant to be. These are difficult days for the U.S., and two days after we celebrated Independence Day, these three athletes born in other places gave us an Olympics civics lesson.

Seattle Times staff columnist

EUGENE, Ore. — They represent the best in the American spirit, but they were born outside this country. They are living the American dream, but their dreams began somewhere else.

As the sun began to set, spotlighting the podium at Hayward Field early Sunday evening, the top three finishers in the 1,500 meters accepted their medals: Bernard Lagat, the gold. Leonel Manzano, the silver. And Lopez Lomong the bronze.

They took their victory lap and soaked up the love from the most loving track and field crowd in their country.

Lagat, Manzano, Lopez, true Americans who will represent the United States next month in Beijing.

"They are all about what America is," said Jon Rankin, who finished sixth. "They're all three wonderful people and fantastic athletes. They earned the right to be here on this team. And I'm proud to have them represent my country."

Forget Daytona. For one day, this was the Great American Race.

Lagat was born in Kenya, Manzano in Mexico and Lomong in Sudan, but they are as American as barbecue. And two days after the Fourth of July, they became part of the U.S. Olympic team.

"It shows that America is the place where dreams can happen," said Lagat, who ran 3:40.37 to win the gold. "I can't find that in Europe, or in my country. The three of us are living the American dream. My goal now is to do my best for this country.

"The three of us came here for different reasons. I came for school, to improve my education and, of course, to run. What matters most now is that we are all Americans. This is the American dream and this opportunity is enormous for all us."

Lagat, Manzano, Lomong — America the beautiful.

"This is a country that I absolutely love," Lomong said. "I told the crowd today, 'Thank you, America, because that was my dream and this shows that dreams come true.' "

Sometimes all of us need a trio of naturalized citizens to realize what this country is meant to be. These are difficult days for the U.S., and two days after we celebrated Independence Day, these three athletes born in other places gave us an Olympics civics lesson.

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"We are one country," said Lagat, who ran for Washington State in the late 1990s. "Anybody who looks at me, nobody says I don't belong here. They're not going to say it. I've never heard it. This is the land of opportunities and as I run for this country I feel like I'm living the American dream. I am using my talent to do well for my country."

Lagat will be the favorite to become the first American to win the Olympic 1,500 meters since Mel Sheppard did it in London in 1908. The last American to win a medal was Jim Ryun, who won silver in 1968 in Mexico City.

Lagat is a marvel to watch. His runs with a pitch-perfect stride. He can win a race that is fast-paced and he can win when the race is more tactical. In Sunday's 1500, the pace was grudgingly slow and with about 150 meters to go, he took off.

After getting shoved and jostled at the beginning of the bell lap, Lagat showed the fight of a featherweight champion.

"I definitely think that guy is from another planet," Rankin said.

Equally important, Lagat, 33, is exactly the kind of person Americans should feel proud that he represents them.

Rankin, for instance, knows all about Lagat's speed and his uncanny ability to win any kind of race at any kind of pace.

He has seen the grace that reminds him of Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals. And he has experienced the toughness that Lagat hides behind those wildly expressive eyes.

But Rankin knows there is much more to the reigning world champion at 1,500 and 5,000.

"He's a great human being," said Rankin.

Rankin remembers the first time he met Lagat, in summer 2005 in Sheffield, England. It was Rankin's first time running in Europe.

The airlines had lost all Lagat's luggage and before the Sheffield race he was begging and borrowing warmup clothes, shoes, suits and socks. One of the fastest men in the world was treating this event as if it were a swap meet. The spikes Lagat wore were a size-and-a-half too big.

"Not only did he win the [1,500-meter] race," Rankin said. "But he ran a 3:52 and the whole race he had a smile on his face. I figured, under the circumstances, he was going to have a miserable day and he turned it into a wonderful day.

"But even with all of his problems, he was worried about me in warmups. Worried about how I felt — things like that. And I'm thinking, 'I'm racing against this guy and he's treating me like this.' In the midst of all he was going through, he was still concerned about other people. He treats everybody so kindly and with a great amount of respect."

Rankin thinks Lagat's talent and compassion can't be separated. Combined, they make him great.

"His mind-set is so special," Rankin said. "People who are as great as he is, it's not just the physical. It's in the mind. They have a great ability to convince themselves that they can do anything in any situation and he's shown that time and time again. He has a very special psyche."

And Bernard Lagat is a very special American.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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