By Caroline Brooks
When athletes qualify to compete in the Olympic Games, it represents years of hard work, dedication, passion, and commitment to their chosen sport. For Mohamed Hrezi (Full-Time MBA ‘18), it’s something more: an opportunity to pay homage to his heritage, family’s history, and culture. On August 21, Hrezi will represent Libya in the Olympic marathon as the country’s sole runner in all track and field events, competing alongside runners from the place he calls home: the United States.
Born and raised in Connecticut, Hrezi’s parents immigrated to the United States and raised him and his brother as dual citizens. When Hrezi’s parents decided to move back to Libya, he had gained a newfound perspective on the place his parents call home, while also gaining a local fan following with Libyan locals. “Representing Libya, I’m extremely proud. There are days that I get letters in the mail from people I don’t know, which have pictures from newspapers and clippings about my running,” he said. “Given the country’s turmoil, any light and positivity is good for the people, and I think they feel even prouder knowing that an American-born Libyan wants to represent them.”
Running for Libya in the Olympics wasn’t always Hrezi’s goal, however. In fact, running wasn’t his choice sport growing up at all. “I started a new school in eighth grade and the only sport was cross country. I was the slowest one on the team, but didn’t care and just kept running. I was always the last one to cross the finish line. I started high school playing soccer and basketball, but got cut sophomore year and literally left the gym after hearing my bad news and went straight to the track. The coach told me that they finished tryouts, but I could go to the first race the following day anyway,” Hrezi said. Turns out, that day changed his life.
Showing up to the first race, Hrezi beat the fastest sprinters on the team. “All of a sudden it just clicked: I wasn’t a cross-county runner. I was a sprinter!” he said. Over time, he increased the distance component of his running and ended up setting state records as a half-mile runner. He graduated from Iowa State University and was named NCAA Division 1 All-American Cross Country in 2013, First Team Academic All-American twice, and numerous other accolades.
Despite his academic achievements, running became Hrezi’s post-undergraduate life. He was recruited by Hanson’s Running Shop in Rochester Hills, Michigan, to be a member of the Hanson Brooks Team, a partnership between the store and Brooks running shoes that sponsors nationally renowned runners to compete as a team across the United States.
It wasn’t long before the Libyan national team took note of Hrezi’s achievements and asked him to be a part of the national training team. “In the past, I was really hesitant to consider the Libyan team. The timing wasn’t right, and I felt when they approached me that we had differences of opinion and ideologies. I didn’t want to leave college in America; I didn’t want to train where they do in Kenya and Morocco. We kept in touch throughout the years and as soon as I qualified for them this year, they’ve been supportive and let me train here.”
Since qualifying for the Libyan Olympic team, Hrezi has continued intense marathon training with a personal coach and with his Hanson Brooks Team. Adding to the physical pressure, Hrezi observed Ramadan, the 30-day Muslim holiday that calls for strict fasting restrictions and prayer time. During this holiday, Hrezi timed his long runs based on when he can eat – sometimes heading out the door at 1:30 a.m. and napping throughout the day. He’ll head to Rio two weeks prior to his race in order to adjust and train in the humid climate.
But the pressure doesn’t seem to phase Hrezi and he’s already planning for what’s next. Upon his return from Rio, Hrezi will resume life in Michigan and as a Broad MBA student. Here, he plans to run with the Spartan track team on occasion and balance his running with studies. “Running is a real release for me, and runners look at what they do as a social activity. It will be something I continue to do in the next phase of my life and hope to take advantage of the resources will be at my fingertips.”
An American, a Libyan, and now a Spartan, Hrezi looks forward to what’s to come – at Rio, and beyond.