London • Abdi Abdirahman is 35 years old and will run in his fourth Olympics for Team USA when the London Games end with the men's marathon Sunday, but anyone who knows him is struck by the childlike innocence with which he embraces life.
It is an innocence that makes children gravitate to him. And it is an innocence that is heartwarming to behold, especially given the reality of his own childhood as a refugee of war-torn Somalia.
"He's the nicest person I know," said training partner Bernard Lagat, a native of Kenya who ran the 5,000 meters here for the U.S. "Abdi's like a child he's full of life, so happy."
Abdirahman could be bitter. He could be scarred, and perhaps down deep he is. He has seen suffering, and death, but chooses to spread joy.
"The way I look at life, there's a reason I'm here today," Abdirahman said. "There's thousands of people in Somalia who died without doing anything [wrong], they have nothing to do with the war and they die for no reason. I am one of those fortunate people, lucky enough to get out of the country and have the opportunity to come to this country and make something out of myself."
Abdirahman and his family escaped his homeland when he was 5, fleeing to Kenya by boat, and they moved to Arizona when he was 8. He ran for the University of Arizona and has carved out a successful career as a professional runner.
"In the U.S. I'm living a great life, wonderful life," Abdirahman said. "I have a great job that I love, I have a degree from college, I have a house. What else could I want in life? Why should I be bitter or make excuses, say, 'I've been through this.' That's past. When you come to this country, you are what you make out of yourself and you don't make any excuses."
Abdirahman was lucky to make it out of Somalia. The boat his family was scheduled to take to Kenya capsized, and most of the people on it drowned.
"There's a boat we were going to take, it left the day before us, we said, 'It's too crowded, we're not going to take it,' " Abdirahman said. "That boat flipped and everyone who was on that boat die except maybe two or three people. I was supposed to be on that boat."
His mother was pregnant at the time. The family fled Somalia with three children, and his mother had another as soon as she arrived in Kenya.
"As soon as we got out of the boat, my sister was born," Abdirahman said. "Straight from the boat to the hospital."
He ran the 10,000 meters for the U.S. in Sydney, Athens and Beijing. He will run Sunday's marathon with teammates Meb Keflezighi and Ryan Hall. Keflizighi also escaped war in his African homeland (Eritrea), coming to the U.S when he was 12.
In Kenya, Abdirahman had schoolbook covers with Muhammad Ali pictured on them. At the Sydney Olympics, he got to meet Ali.
"I took a picture with him. It was amazing to meet a person like that," Abdirahman said. "That's one of my idols."
He had another thrill there when he got to meet Billy Mills, a native American who won the 10,000 meters at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
"It was amazing," Abdirahman said. "Billy Mills is one of my idols. I have a DVD of his movie 'Running Brave.' It's an inspirational movie. If you need inspiration in life, if you're doubting yourself, you should watch Billy Mills' movie. I watch it all the time. It proves anything can happen in running."