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Niyo: Rochester Hills’ Hrezi ready to make his mark in Rio

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Rio de Janeiro — Even as he toes the line Sunday for the start of the Olympic men’s marathon, Mohamed Hrezi will find himself straddling it.

And this is something that has taken the 25-year-old Hrezi, who trains with the Hansons-Brooks team in Rochester Hills and will begin graduate school at Michigan State this fall, most of a lifetime to feel comfortable with, or even fully understand.

But that’s what the Olympics are for, right? That’s the forgotten ideal, at least, blurring lines and bridging borders and breaking barriers, which is what has happened in Rio for Hrezi, an American-born distance runner who marched into the stadium two weeks ago carrying the Libyan flag in the Opening Ceremony.

“Life-changing,” is how Hrezi described it, live-streaming part of that memorable night in real time on Periscope.

“Very proud” is the feeling shared by his father, Fuad, home in Tripoli, the Libyan capital where most of Hrezi’s family returned to live in 2012 following a civil war that toppled the brutal regime of Muammar Gaddafi there after more than 40 years.

Hrezi’s father initially came to the U.S. to attend college in 1981, finished graduate school in Connecticut, and then spent nearly 25 years working at Propark America, where he served as vice president of operations. But he and his wife, Hanadi, always had talked of moving back to Libya. And when the revolution finally happened — friends and relatives among those who joined the fight, some giving their lives — “My father said, ‘This is it ... this is a sign,’ ” said Mohamed, or “Mo” as everyone calls him.

The following year, Mo’s parents and his four sisters moved back to Tripoli, where they’ve opened a private, English-speaking American school that currently has 165 students enrolled.

“We thought this was the best way to give back to society and help rebuild Libya after being liberated from the dictatorship of Gaddafi,” Fuad said.

His eldest son feels that same pull, as do so many first-generation immigrants in the United States. Only his is from a different angle, 5,000 miles away from the post-revolution reality of a North African country reborn.

He lived for a time in Libya as a young boy, learning Arabic first and then English. And after moving to the U.S., growing up in Waterbury, Conn., and graduating from high school there in 2009, the family still traveled back to Libya every other summer. When his parents moved back to Libya, he started making the trip twice a year, in between track and cross-country seasons at Iowa State, where he earned All-America honors in 2013.

“A lot of dual citizens don’t really have connections to both places,” Hrezi said. “But when you have such tight connections, being born and raised here and having family there, it’s different, in a lot of ways.

“American Libyans, we’ve been blessed with a pretty good life, but we’re attached to Libya in a different way. We grew up only seeing the good. We go for a month or two, visit family, go to the beach, have a lot of fun. So we have this kind of whitewashed, utopian view of what Libya is. And we always have this ambition for Libya that people there don’t even see.”

‘Run for Libya’

Still, at his parents’ urging, he’s staying in the U.S. for the foreseeable future, as is his younger brother, who recently graduated from North Carolina with a degree in public health. Mo will begin grad school for his MBA at Michigan State as soon as he returns from Brazil.

He’d actually applied there last fall, planning to quit his running career after disappointing results in his marathon debut in Chicago last fall (2 hours 23 minutes 14 seconds) and the U.S. Olympic Trials in February (2:28:24) in Los Angeles. Now he’ll try to do both, he says.

Hrezi, who didn’t start running until his sophomore year in high school, credits his coach at Iowa State, Corey Ihmels, now at Boise State, for convincing him he wasn’t a half-miler after he’d transferred there. It was Ihmels, too, who vouched for him with brothers Kevin and Keith Hanson when they’d called inquiring about adding Hrezi to their post-college training group. It’s a program, founded in 1999, that has sent marathoners to the last three Olympics, including Desi Linden, one of the top American women who was seventh in Rio.

But it was Hrezi’s Hansons teammate, Mike Morgan, who helped convince him to give Rio one more serious run, even though he’d fallen well short of the Olympic qualifying standard (2:19) in his first two attempts.

“I was getting ready for track season and he said, ‘You’re not gonna give it one more shot?’ ” Hrezi said. “He basically just convinced me, ‘You’re right there in the marathon.’ ”

Sure enough, he was, crossing the line at the Ottawa Marathon in May in 2:18.40, picking up a $2,000 prize check and then checking his phone to see text messages from the Libyan Athletics Federation congratulating him on his Olympic berth.

He’d talked with Libyan officials throughout college, but had resisted offers to move back to Africa to train. Instead, he’d landed in Detroit, where the Hanson brothers have spent the better part of two decades doing their part to revive American distance running. But Kevin was among those encouraging Hrezi to chase this dream representing Libya, listing all the reasons why it made sense.

“He just said, ‘No matter what, I stand by you. But if I was you, I’d run for Libya. There’s a lot of pride there,’ ” Hrezi recalled.

Just how much, though, even Hrezi had no idea until he’d become an Olympian, profiled on the national TV news in Libya, messages pouring in via social media, his father even telling him with a chuckle, “You know, you’re kind of a superstar over here.”

“It kind of slapped me in the face out of nowhere,” said Hrezi, one of six Libyan athletes in Rio, which partly explains how he ended up the flagbearer.

‘Representing 1.6 billion’

Of course, this also meant a quick turnaround for a marathon in August. And it meant training through Ramadan, the traditional month of fasting observed by Muslims. Hrezi, a devout Muslim, had trained before during Ramadan — no food or water from sunrise to sunset — but never for a marathon.

“It’s harder than I imagined,” he said. “Your body just gets really, really tired and stays there. It’s just constant exhaustion.”

And it didn’t matter how he scheduled his workouts — morning, evening, or even in the middle of the night, which is what he finally settled on, heading out on the streets of Rochester Hills and the trails at Stony Creek Metropark at 1:30 a.m. for a 20-mile run with Kevin Hanson riding a bike alongside to keep him company. “People probably thought I was crazy,” he laughed.

But here’s the crazy thing he has learned on this road to discovery: That testing his faith has opened opportunities, and even a few minds.

It is not an easy time to be a Muslim in America, Hrezi acknowledges, though he isn’t sure it ever really was.

“Growing up, your parents tell you, ‘Be on your best behavior — all the time — because you’re not just representing yourself or us: You’re representing 1.6 billion people,’ ” he said. “You have this burden that people don’t even realize you’re carrying around.”

But as an adult, living with non-Muslim roommates in college — “Christian, agnostic, atheist, whatever,” he says — and lately training with an eclectic, diverse group in Michigan, “I’ve really learned to tackle it and appreciate it.” He eats halal foods and prays five times a day, but still mingles socially with teammates. With former BYU standout Jason Witt joining the group this year, the running joke with the Hansons crew was, “So a Muslim and a Mormon walk into a bar …”

“It’s kind of cool,” Hrezi said. “People see the way I live my life, and if you have a question about it, you can approach me about it. I’m not going to impose what I believe on you. But I can show people know that Mo is a Muslim, but he’s also American. And it keeps me honest, because I have to make sure I’m being the best Muslim I can be. I can show that, unlike what today’s culture might tell you here, you can be both. You can balance the two.”

You can toe the line, and straddle it, too.