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Rio de Janeiro • One-hundred-and-eight runners finished before she did. Only 24 trailed behind at the finish line. But Chirine Njeim was the very last marathoner to exit the Sambadrómo Stadium Sunday afternoon.
The 31-year-old former University of Utah downhill skier and Rowmark Ski Academy product had just become the 28th woman ever to represent a country in both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games. Exhausted, soaked in sweat and still trying to catch her breath, Njeim turned around to see her husband, Ronny, waiting for an embrace. He kissed his wife and wrapped the Lebanese flag around her while Njeim's support crew in Rio de Janeiro applauded in the stands nearby.
That's when Njeim, composed and all smiles after finishing her first Olympic marathon, broke down.
Fourteen years after she served as the flag bearer for Lebanon inside Rice-Eccles Stadium at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Njeim completed her 26.2 miles in two hours and 51 minutes 109th place. In preparation for the Rio marathon, she was aiming for 2 hours and 40 minutes. The Brazilian heat returned after a few cloudy, chilly days, making the conditions more difficult. She wanted a better time, but accepted the realities of the situation afterward.
"Marathon brings the best out of you," she said. "But it takes a lot of you. You get to a point where your mind just has to take over. There's a lot along the way today where I wanted to stop, but I just kept saying, 'I want to finish.' "
It helped seeing fans waving the Lebanese flag every once in a while during those two hours and 51 minutes Sunday, she said. Since making her Olympic debut at 16 in her adopted hometown of Salt Lake City, Njeim became a regular. After racing in the slalom and downhill in 2002, she competed four years later in the Torino Games in 2006 and again in Vancouver in 2010, where she finished 34th in the women's downhill.
Reflecting on her high school and college days in Utah, Njeim said she used to actually despise running. She'd rather be dodging a gate on an alpine hill somewhere back then.
"It was too much to do an eight-mile run, but I guess if you don't experience, you don't push your body and you'll never learn," she said. "I fell in love with the sport and now I'm addicted do it."
Njeim's first crack at a marathon came at the 2012 Chicago Marathon, the place she and her husband call home these days. That, she explains, set her on this new Olympic path. Ditched long ago are the skis, poles, helmet, goggles and racing skins. The former Ute followed that new path all the way to her fourth Olympic Games.
"There's so many obstacles along the way if you stop, you never get there," she said. "You might as well push to the end and see what happens, because that's how you find out who you are as a person and how much you can push the body."
Once the tears came, they didn't stop. The cheers at the exit for the marathoners Sunday didn't, either. Her crew, consisting of parents, friends and business associates, wouldn't stop. Njeim hopes to have this same reception in four year's time in Tokyo only with a better result. Still wrapped in the Lebanese flag, Njeim said she's already taking aim at the 2020 Games.
"This is just the beginning of a long journey," she said before finally exiting.
Olympic women's marathon
Gold • Jemima Jelagat Sumgong, Kenya, 2:24.04
Silver • Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa, Beirut, 2:24.13
Bronze• Mare Dibaba, Ethiopia, 2:24.30
109th • Chirine Njeim, Lebanon, 2:51:08
About Chirine Njeim
Former University of Utah alpine skier
Rowmark Ski Academy product
28th woman ever to compete in both Summer and Olympic Games
First Lebanese woman to accomplish the feat