One of Mohamed Hrezi’s training partners wished him well on the day he left for Canada to run the Ottawa Marathon last May. Hrezi’s roommate in Michigan at the Hansons-Brooks training center, Bobby Curtis, said, “You’ll either come back an Olympian, or come back the person everyone will forget about. It will be life-changing.”
Hrezi came back an Olympian, and it has changed his life.
Hrezi, 24, a former All-New England track star and state cross country champion at Naugatuck High, ran the Ottawa Marathon in 2 hours, 18 minutes, 40 seconds, which was 20 seconds under the marathon qualifying standard of 2:19. Hrezi finished seventh, pocketed $2,000 in prize money and, most importantly, earned a spot on the Libyan Olympic team.
Hrezi will compete at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro next month.
Hrezi was born in Connecticut, raised in Waterbury and is a 2009 Naugy grad. His parents — father Fuad and mother Hanadi — are natives of Tripoli, Libya, and moved back permanently in 2012. Mohamed also spent a portion of his youth living in Tripoli.
When he started marathon training in 2015, Hrezi contacted the Libyan Olympic committee. His father played a critical role in Tripoli.
“It was invaluable having him there,” Hrezi said. “He got all the paperwork done.”
Like former Crosby High star Lisa Stublic, who held dual citizenship and represented Croatia in the London Olympics of 2012, Hrezi will run for the homeland of his parents. He admitted that he had to be convinced.
“I discussed it for a long time with my coaches,” Hrezi said by telephone from Rochester, Mich., where he lives, trains and works part-time in a running store. “They told me, ‘Listen, man, that is the definition of dual citizenship. You have pride in that country. You are not choosing one country over the other. You are not any less American or less Libyan.’”
“That made sense to me.”
It made sense to the Libyan Olympic Committee, too.
“They followed the race on the internet,” Hrezi said of the Libyan officials, “and when I crossed the finish line, I got a text message almost immediately.”
The message from Libya said simply: “Congratulations.”
Hrezi is now one of four Olympians on the Libyan team that will compete in Rio. He joked, “You won’t miss me during the opening ceremony.”
Hrezi’s journey began years ago in Naugatuck Valley League cross country races and track meets. He was an NVL and state Class L champion in cross country, and All-State and All-New England in track. Hrezi went off to Iowa State, where he earned All-American status there in cross country along with an accounting degree.
“Upon graduating, I decided not to pursue an actual career,” Hrezi said.
Always a middle distance kind of guy, Hrezi went to Michigan for marathon training with the Hansons-Brooks team. If running 100-plus miles a week and working part-time was not enough, Hrezi tossed another brick on the load.
“I was accepted into the Michigan State graduate school for business,” he said. “That starts next month.”
The same month they play the Games in Rio.
“I have no idea what I was thinking,” he said.
Hrezi has always had two life goals: One, compete in the Olympics; two, earn a Ph.D.
Hrezi had a life decision to make. He took both.
“I have always had these two goals in my life,” he said. “They are two things that you cannot do without years and years of dedication.”
The Libyan Olympic Committee had watched him over those years.
“They had been in contact with me off and on since high school,” Hrezi said. “They suggested that I drop out of school and train in track full-time.”
That was not Hrezi’s style then, and it is not now.
There are, of course, the inevitable conflicts. The first day of classes at Michigan State is Aug. 22. The Olympic marathon in Rio is Aug. 21.
“The university has been fantastic,” Hrezi said. “They said, ‘Don’t worry; we will get you caught up.’”
So now, Hrezi’s focus is on one task.
“This is still surreal to me,” he said. “It is one of those things you always hoped to accomplish but in the back of your mind, you always think you’ll be just short.”
The run to Rio was perilous.
“I have only run three marathons,” Hrezi said, “and two went horribly wrong.”
Last October, Hrezi ran the Chicago Marathon in 2:23. In February, he ran in Los Angeles in 2:28. Ottawa was his last shot. The race was May 28 on a hot and humid day in Canada, of all places.
“My coach (Kevin Howard) told me not to worry about the heat,” Hrezi recalled. “He told me that I am fast enough and that my training times indicated that I would run three minutes faster than my goal, as long as I didn’t do anything stupid,” joked Hrezi.
But due to the heat, the field ran out much too slow. Hrezi was in trouble.
“It was a scary race because I was out too slow,” he said. “It is almost impossible to negative-split a marathon.”
But that is what Hrezi had to do. When he saw his split time at the 13-mile mark, he realized that he had to run the second 13 miles of the race faster than he had run the first half.
And he did it — “by about a minute, and it was not easy because the second half of the course was a lot hillier. I guess I was counterintuitive.”
In one month, Hrezi, NVL champion, state champion and Naugy grad, will be in Rio on the world’s biggest athletic stage.
“It hasn’t quite hit me yet,” he said. “You don’t really realize how big this moment is. I don’t want to forget what got me here. I want to compete to the best of my ability, do a personal best and finish as high as possible.
“I don’t want to go all the way to Rio and not show up.”