Olympic marathon runner Guor Mading Maker believed he had finished running when he was granted asylum by the United States in 2001. Nobody would blame him. He spent most of his childhood running for his life.
Mading Maker grew up in South Sudan in the midst of a civil war and was only 8 years old when his parents sent him away to find his uncle, hoping to escape violence. Shortly afterwards, he was captured and enslaved by a group of Messiria, an ethnic group of shepherds in Western Sudan. He became one of the “Lost Boys” in Sudan, around 20,000 young people who were displaced during the war.
After a daring escape, Mading Maker ran through northern Sudan and ended up in a refugee camp in Egypt. He was with his aunt and uncle in Concord, New Hampshire, where he attended high school. Shortly afterwards, a teacher noticed his natural athleticism during one of his PT classes and asked him if he wanted to try out athletics.
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“I didn’t know that running was a sport,” Mading Maker told Men’s Journal. “I had never seen it in that light.” After a bit of persuasion, he signed – a decision that would change his life forever, according to the newly released documentary Runner.
Mading Maker is now a two-time Olympic champion, training for his third Olympic Games and a member of the U.S. Air Force’s world-class athlete program. He served as a pilot at the Colorado Springs base. Here he tells more about his turbulent upbringing and how running changed his life.
Men’s Journal: What are your earliest memories of growing up in South Sudan?
Guor Mading Maker: At home I was always a very active child. I spent a lot of time helping my father with his goats and sheep and other agricultural work. Every child is like this in my country, all the time outdoors. When I was growing up in a war zone, there were of course many dangers and violence that were difficult to escape. It is difficult for me to think about these early years and times in my life. I try to avoid these memories because it brings me nothing but sadness. Yes, there were happy moments with friends, but it was more tragic than anything else. I don’t think my story is special in this regard. There were and are many young people who are refugees. If you were forced to flee your own country, you will face challenges, perhaps to different degrees, but the same in many ways.
What was the most difficult adjustment when you came to America?
The hardest part of acclimatization was learning the language. Back in South Sudan, I only spoke one language. I had to learn Arabic when I moved to North Sudan and then to Egypt. All of these places also had different cultures that I had to understand. Originating from African culture, the states were completely different. There was a lot to get used to, from food to language to culture. But I’m glad I found running because the friends I found I will have all my life. It allowed me to connect with my colleagues. I look back on my decision to join the running club and thank God for the gifts and relationships he gave me.
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Were you worried about joining the team?
I was initially not interested in running. I felt like I had run back enough in Sudan – and in this case I was forced to run to save my life. When I arrived in the United States, I was no longer interested in running. I also had no idea that running was a sport. I had never seen anyone on TV before and I really had never heard of it. The only sport I saw at home was soccer that I saw on TV in Egypt.
What were some of the initial challenges?
I couldn’t believe the distances they covered. I just thought it was crazy. Why are you running so long And how? I thought maybe I would only do it to find friends, which I did, but when I finally won a national indoor championship, it got a lot more serious for me. I could see that it was a way for me to help others. My trainers told me about the potential for scholarships and the opportunity to get adequate training was very attractive.
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Do you remember when you actually fell in love with running?
I became addicted to it during my high school education. Every day I didn’t run I felt like I was missing something. No matter what happens, I will at least jog, even if it is only about ten kilometers. I feel the energy that it gives me in my blood and in my heart. There were many tracks to train in New Hampshire that I consistently trained hard on. When winter came we were pretty stuck on the streets because of the snow. Sometimes it was so cold that we just stayed inside and did laps in the gym. Every weekend our bus took us for a beautiful, scenic run – through the hills for about 15 miles or more. There was a small park near the school where we did our cross country training. We stayed out there doing a few 800m reps. I was looking forward to it. I think running can be a great therapist for anyone who is ready to really get involved. Even if you have no trauma, it is healthy for your mind.
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How has your relationship with running in Iowa State College changed?
The mileage and intensity increased significantly. Iowa was cold in winter, colder than New Hampshire. So everything was inside for about two hours, covering 200 to 300 miles. We wouldn’t even go on vacation because we work so hard to be the best. I felt responsible for myself to be as good as possible because of the opportunity that school had given me.
I think running can be a great therapist for anyone who is ready to really get involved.
What did it mean to you to take part in the Olympic Games?
I knew that if I made it to the Olympics and reached a destination, it would mean something special for the young children from my country and for other refugees like me. My career has always been for her. I want to give them hope so they can see where I can go and maybe do the same or go further. I want them to dream. I hope that a child who is in a refugee camp or has been displaced will see pictures of me and know that she can do it.
How was the training for your first Olympic Games?
I pushed myself to my limits. The human body is incredible under adverse conditions – but I may have put too much pressure on it. One day my teammates actually took me aside and told me, Guor, if you keep doing this, you will go crazy. They thought I was putting too much on myself, but there was no other way it could be. I had the opportunity, so I had to do everything in my power to make the best of it. That was my responsibility. If I’m healthy enough to run, I have to get out of there.
How did the decision to run independently at the 2012 Summer Olympics come about?
I remember sitting with my roommate during my first year at college and making the decision to run for South Sudan. Back then, South Sudan and North Sudan were one country, but I always had the people of South Sudan in my heart. When it was found that South Sudan cannot participate in these games and I cannot represent my home country, I had to choose an alternative. I understand that not many are given the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games, but the only flag I wanted to raise was that of South Sudan. So my eyes turned almost immediately to 2016 when I had this chance.
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How was that experience – raising the flag of South Sudan?
Raising our flag during this Olympic Games is a moment that I will never forget. I raised it for my family, for the small children of my country and for the millions who died during the war. I wanted to raise this flag as a tribute to her. It is difficult to put the feeling into words. The thought of it brings tears to my eyes. Because I look back at everyone we lost – my own siblings. It hurts so bad. I can see in my heart and in my head that one day a child from South Sudan will win the Olympic Games, I’m sure of that. I will be able to look back on the role I played in laying the foundation stone, and that makes me proud.
Who were your role models in sports?
I remember when I started walking on TV there were a couple of people that really inspired me. One of them was the US sprinter Michael Johnson, another was Haile Gebrselassie from Ethiopia and another was Paul Tergat from Kenya. I looked up a lot at these guys. To date, they are my heroes. I dreamed of ending a marathon like this. I met Paul Target at the 2016 Olympics and was thrilled to take a picture with this guy. I think we look pretty similar too! I hope that one day I can meet Gebrselassie. The way they took part in competitions was amazing – not just the way they run, but also the commitment and determination. I have their books and read them often for motivation. I actually used Paul Tergat’s program to train for the 2012 Olympics. I was obsessed! These are my boys.
Courtesy of the U.S. Air Force
What made you decide to join the Air Force after the 2016 Olympic Games?
I wanted to join the Air Force to give something back. After the Olympics, I was very grateful for what I could do for South Sudan, but I also wanted to show respect to the United States, which helped me to take this opportunity. Here I was greeted and allowed to become the person I am today. I also wanted to show that refugees can be productive in the countries where they live. I wanted to thank the whole country and I couldn’t think of a better way to do this than to put on and serve the military uniform.
What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement in relation to the world of running?
I think it is currently the responsibility of every society to break down prejudice based on race, gender or other discrimination. We have come a long way, but much remains to be done. The color of our skin should not separate us or contrast us. We bleed the same blood, breathe the same air, and eat the same food. Let us concentrate on what connects us. Running does its part; They work hard to bring us together. You can see unity in the spirit of sport. I think the Olympic Village shows us a better way, countries may be at war, but the Olympic Village, where all athletes gather, is about camaraderie. We may not speak the same language, but we have a common purpose. The friends I made in these competitions will last my life. I have never felt discriminated against in sports. The only moments I felt profiled are outside – on the street where people may not be able to see that I am an Olympian, an athlete, or a member of the military. The first one someone will see is an African man. It is therefore important to know the law and the rules so that you can protect yourself in any event. The way I see it, every civilization has problems. We are a complex species. I think people are beginning to understand that this is not good for our society. We can do better.
How is training going for the Tokyo Olympics – now scheduled for 2021?
Training is going well. The focus is there, nothing has changed, even during the pandemic. I’ve had a lot of injuries since 2016, but that’s part of being an athlete. But I won’t let them stop me. I take care of myself and the rest will take care of themselves. Because of the pandemic, we don’t meet in large groups. We have two or three people in our training teams. I like to train in Colorado. It’s very different from Flagstaff, Arizona, where I used to train. There are many hills and unpaved roads. It is really good for training for 10 km to marathon level – filled with a beautiful landscape.
How do you stay motivated to this day?
Every morning when I put on my shoes before training, I repeat to myself that I have to do that. This is my moment Ever since I left my family, I’ve spent every day thinking that I have to be better today than yesterday. I think this idea helped me get where I am today – that and the desire to help people in South Sudan. It is a driving force in everything I do.
“Runner” is now available here on request (part of the proceeds will go to the Refugee Assistance Alliance).
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