Guor Maker has come a long way


uor Maker was a lost boy struggling to find his way in a strange world when he met track coach Rusty Cofrin.

Maker was a refugee from Sudan who'd escaped a land of terror. He'd been ripped from his home and parents and dropped into a land of peace and plenty in Concord, N.H. He didn't know English, had no friends and no idea about his future.

But after watching the skinny sophomore run around a field and then do 2 miles on the track in basketball shoes, Cofrin could see a future Maker couldn't possibly imagine.

"He impressed the hell out of me," says Cofrin. "So obviously, we took him on."

Over the next three years, Maker -- formerly known as Guor Marial -- ran cross country and indoor and outdoor track at Concord High and discovered along the way that running would change his life.

It opened doors to college and the Olympics and has given him the chance to help inspire young people in his native South Sudan.

Now a rising marathoner, Maker, 28, looks back and is grateful that Cofrin and so many others showed him the way.

"It was something I did not see would save my life, determine my future," says Maker, who thought about quitting several times in high school because of the hardships he faced. "But he [Cofrin] knew it. He's a coach, he knows. He's an American, and he sat me down in his office and he told me a lot of stuff. He said running is the key ticket for you to go to college. Running is the future for you."

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Maker's early years were filled with horror. The long civil war in Sudan resulted in the death of more than 25 family members, including eight of his 10 siblings. He was kidnapped at the age of 8 and forced to work as a child laborer. Eventually, he fled to Egypt and was granted refugee status that allowed him to come to the U.S. in 2001.

Yet despite his past, his constant smile and willingness to work quickly won friends.

"This kid, back then and even now, he's the most delightful kid," says Cofrin. "If I could have a whole classroom of him, it would have been wonderful. He's just so thankful all the time."

He lived with an aunt and uncle in Concord, got a job stocking produce at a grocery store and learned English by talking to children and watching cartoons and "Sesame Street."

Cofrin says he gave Guor a tryout for the track team because a P.E. teacher had told him, "Listen, you've got to give this guy a look. No matter what cardio machine I put him on, I cannot tire him out."

He rode his bike to school, practiced in the afternoon, rode to work afterward and then pedaled home at 11 p.m. -- where he stayed up late doing homework and practicing English.

Cofrin and others eventually stepped in to give him rides and make certain he had meals. Later, when his uncle moved away, Maker decided to stay in Concord and was taken in by a succession of three families, including Cofrin's.

Though he sometimes wanted to quit -- at one point he was devastated by the news that a brother had died back home -- Maker stuck with running and continued to improve.

As a senior he won the national high school 2-mile race held at New York's Armory. After working hard to raise his grades and SAT scores, he earned a scholarship to Iowa State.

At Ames, he was an All-American in cross country and ran multiple events, including the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meters.

Iowa State coach Corey Ihmels always believed the longer the distance, the better Maker would be. Though he and Maker never really talked about the marathon, Ihmels says he's not surprised by the early success Maker has had at the distance since leaving college.

"Having been through what he's been, he's not afraid," says Ihmels. "There's no fear. And I think to be a great marathoner you have to go into it without fear. I think that's definitely a positive thing for him as he moves forward."

After graduating from Iowa State, Maker moved to Flagstaff, Ariz., to train at altitude. It was there that he prepared for his first marathon, the Twin Cities, in October of 2011. He finished in 2:14:32, good for fifth place and meeting the Olympic qualifying standard. The next time out, he was sixth in San Diego, running 2:12:55.

After Maker's first marathon, Ihmels says his wife couldn't believe how fast his time was.

"And I kind of made the comment to her, 'Guor probably thought he was going to run 2:06,'" he recalls. "That's just his attitude and his outlook."

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Marathon No. 3 came at the Summer Olympics in London amid much scrutiny.

Though Maker met the Olympic qualifying standard at the Twin Cities Marathon, he was not yet an American citizen and was therefore ineligible to compete for a spot on the U.S. team. He also couldn't run for South Sudan because he wasn't a citizen of the new nation (which also had no Olympic team).

But Maker had met attorney and runner Brad Poore at the race, and Poore was intrigued by his story and took up his cause. Poore petitioned the International Olympic Committee to let Maker run in the London Games.

In late July, the IOC granted him a spot to compete under the IOC flag.

He went into the race not at peak fitness -- he was surprised to actually gain a spot, he says -- and finished 47th in 2:19:32.

But for Maker, simply competing was a victory. It was a chance to represent both the people of South Sudan and the United States.

The Games gave him an opportunity to tell his story and that of his homeland. And when he ran, he saw fellow refugees cheering. The more he thinks about it, the more he understands how important it was.

"It was just very special to the refugees as a whole and the South Sudanese people and the people who support me here in the U.S.," he says. "My family, my relatives and everyone else, friends, all the supporters, the Iowa State community and New Hampshire community. It was amazing. To be able to have that opportunity, it was something which is more important to the refugees than it was to me."

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His fourth marathon was to have been at Boston on April 15, but a heel injury -- which also kept him from running the New York City Half Marathon in March -- didn't get better in time for him to train properly, so he had to withdraw.

Having lived in New England, Maker knows how big the Boston Marathon is. He remembers watching it on TV while in high school and thinking, "One day, I'm going to run that race."

It was going to be a special day, he said recently, with friends coming down from Concord to watch him. He had hopes of finishing in the top 10.

"That would be a reasonable place, especially in that kind of a competitive marathon," he said.

Now marathon No. 4 likely won't come until the fall. He'll take his time to determine when and where.

Though disappointed, Maker now is turning his focus toward a trip in May to South Sudan, where he will reunite with parents he hasn't seen in 20 years.

As he talks about the prospect, a smile spreads across his face and his eyes light up. His plans are to fly into Juba in South Sudan, still many hours from his parents' village. He's already envisioning their welcome.

"I'd like for him to be the one receiving me at the airport, you see," he says of his father. "Both my dad and my mom. Having that kind of thing is going to be amazing. I can't wait to see them. It's going to be a blessing."

While there, he plans to meet with government officials to see if South Sudan has plans to send athletes to compete internationally. He would love to gain dual citizenship and represent his homeland -- either in track events or the marathon -- at the World Track and Field Championships or the Olympics.

Though he is now eligible to compete for the U.S., having become a proud citizen this year, he believes he can do the most good by competing for South Sudan.

Once a boy without a country, he is now a man with two.

"I would not be a rich athlete ever by representing South Sudan, but I think influencing people indirectly, I think that's the most rewarding thing ever that I think I can give to the South Sudanese people," he says. "I think doing this indirectly, holding that flag of South Sudan, it would really, really grab the attention of the young, talented kids in the village, in the city, to also work hard and look at me and say, 'OK, if Guor did this, why not? He's just one of us.' Having that, showing that kind of way to them, is really going to help the whole country."

Ihmels says Maker is a person passionate about helping others.

"I always told him when he was here, 'Someday you're going to do something really great,'" he says. "Whatever he decides to do when he moves on, he's going to do something that's going to help his country. He's a pretty conscientious kid and has a great heart and does things for the right reasons."

After having others open so many doors for him, he's eager to open doors for others.

"I think God chose me, brought me from slavery, the hard conditions in Khartoum and the same in Egypt and brought me here and saved me here from all the obstacles," he says. " ... I think that's what the good Lord God is telling me, 'Guor, you are the one that's going to show the young generation of South Sudan. This is how you're going to do it, and you're going to help the country.'"