American dream realized on 9/11/01

Coming off a summer track season in which 38-year-old Magdalena Lewy-Boulet crushed her personal best times in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter events, the Olympic marathoner is eager to represent the United States one more time next year in London.

For Lewy-Boulet, who last month became the second American woman in 17 years to win the New Balance Falmouth Road Race, wearing the U.S. uniform has special meaning for her. Born and raised in Poland, she became an American citizen on Sept. 11, 2001, at the same time the country was under terrorist attack. A decade later, Lewy-Boulet, who lives with her husband and their son in Oakland, Calif., recalls the day she was sworn in as a citizen, and how those events have influenced her life as a professional athlete and a mother.

espnW: When did you decide to become a U.S. citizen?

Magdalena Lewy-Boulet: In the late 1980s, my family left Poland and moved to Germany, where we stayed for three years. My mom's brother had already moved to the United States, to Long Beach, Calif., so during my senior year in high school we moved to California, too. That was 10 years prior to when I became a citizen.

You have to wait five years after you get your Green Card to apply for citizenship. I was going to school [the University of California] and trying to focus on my education, so after I graduated in 1997, I started filling out the paperwork. It was close to 2000 when I took the citizenship test and was sent a letter that my swearing-in ceremony would be on September 11, 2001. That was about six months away, so I just waited for that day.

espnW: What kinds of feelings did you have as the day approached?

MLB: My parents became citizens three months before me, in Southern California. It wasn't until then that I became really, really excited about it, because of their experience. They expressed how emotional it was when they walked into the federal building and 1,000 other people were being sworn in, too. It is usually about a four-hour ceremony -- I really started looking forward to it then.

espnW: Tell us about your experiences on Sept. 11.

MLB: The morning of my ceremony was a normal day for me. I got up, got dressed, and my husband [boyfriend at the time] and I got in the car. We didn't turn the radio on, because we were talking about what the ceremony would be like. I was nervous and excited. I lived in Oakland, so we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco and parked at the federal building. It was 8 a.m. We walked in and there were a lot of people. I kept hearing random words like, "terrorist" or "bomb" but nothing official -- just overhearing people talking.

There was a lot of security and I started getting really nervous. An announcement was made that the ceremony would be five minutes long because of a terrorist attack. At that moment, I was just wondering what was going on. My heart was probably beating as hard as it has during any race.

espnW: What was the ceremony like at that point?

MLB: It lasted five minutes and I had mixed feelings. I was looking forward to this experience and an emotional ceremony, which was taken away. At the same time, I look back and it is even more meaningful than any other day I could have become a U.S. citizen, because of what the day stands for and how seriously I take it. I remember going back to my car and being in shock, still not knowing exactly what was happening. My husband and I turned on the radio and just sat in the car for a half an hour.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Lewy-Boulet, now 38, improved her marathon personal best to 2:26:22 last year.

I take the fact that I have the privilege of being a U.S. citizen so seriously -- it's a totally different level. A decade later, I still always know that Sept. 11th is approaching -- it's on TV, it's in newspapers -- for that reason, it brings all the memories back. I think it's going to be like that for the rest of my life.

espnW: This year, especially, with it being the 10th anniversary, how do you commemorate the day? Or do you?

MLB: I don't feel any different this year. Every year is special. I do feel that we're trying to keep that memory alive. My son is 6 years old, and I think it's really important to make sure that the younger kids know what happened and we remember all the people that we lost that day. I have a responsibility to talk about it. My son is at this age that he will finally understand what happened. I have an opportunity to explain to him how I became a U.S. citizen and how important that is to me -- and how much more important it is because of what happened on September 11th.

espnW: You're also in the position of being an athlete who's represented the country at the highest level, the Olympic Games. What does it mean when you put on the USA singlet? Do you think it's a different experience for you than it is for your fellow pro runners?

MLB: Every time I put that singlet that says USA on it, I think about the day I became a citizen. It brings me back every time. I have that visual of the day I got sworn in and I picture what I saw on TV. It goes back to how meaningful that is to me, especially because of all the people who died that day. It's almost too hard to explain how important that is when I race, especially qualifying for the Olympics and representing the U.S. at the Olympics and major championships. It's unbelievable. It never goes away. I am constantly reminded of that day. I don't take it for granted -- it's a reminder to never take anything for granted.

espnW: When you made the U.S. team for the World Cross Country Championships in 2010 and got to compete in Poland, what was that like for you?

MLB: It was an opportunity of a lifetime to be able to qualify for a world championship and represent the United States while competing for the first time in my life on Polish soil. I was not a runner growing up in Poland, I was a swimmer. It was so exciting to have the opportunity to do that. My grandma was at the end of her life at that time. She was 98 when I competed in Poland and I got to share the experience with her and my son. We won the bronze medal for the U.S. in Poland. It made my whole journey so worthwhile and so special. When I think about that day and sharing that excitement with my teammates, it puts a huge smile on my face.

espnW: That success has clearly carried over into 2011, too.

MLB: My level of excitement came from that world cross country race, followed by my huge personal record [2:26:22] at the Rotterdam Marathon last year. It was a new beginning for me, getting the taste of success. I had been chasing a sub-2:30 marathon for a long time. Those two races gave new meaning to my goals right now. If you want something you just have to work really hard, and eventually it's going to happen.

This summer was another good example. I had really good training all winter. Unfortunately, it didn't translate in April at the London Marathon. I was shooting for a PR and I came up short, but a month later, my summer season was a blessing. Again I could have given up just because London didn't go well, instead of trusting in the training in the past year. Now I'm looking forward to chasing those goals, like making the Olympic team in the marathon and representing the U.S. in London.

espnW: What's next?

MLB: I have two races on my schedule. One is the women's 10K U.S. Championships in Boston next month, then a 5K in New York during the New York City Marathon weekend in November. The rest is hard training until the Olympic Marathon Trials in January.

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