In Mohamed Abdi Mohamed's childhood, Abdi Bile was like a folk hero.
"My mom told me all these stories," says Mohamed, 26, who was born in Somalia and grew up in a refugee camp. "She told me there's a Somali who went to America and basically conquered America."
Bile was a world champion runner, dominating the 1,500-meter race in the late 1980s. He's also a national legend and the most decorated athlete in the history of Somalia, where a certain make of pickup truck has been dubbed the "Abdi Bile" for its speed. In 2019, Bile quietly moved from Virginia to Minnesota to coach runners and help develop youth in Minneapolis.
But all Mohamed knew was that there was a hero living in his midst when he worked the phones in Minnesota's Somali American community to get hold of Bile's cell number. At the time, he was a junior at Macalester College in St. Paul and at the lowest point of his five years in the United States. Homesickness, grief and plummeting grades were leading him to question if coming here on an academic scholarship was worth it.
On a gamble, Mohamed called Abdi Bile.
Shockingly, Abdi Bile picked up.
Mohamed could hardly spit out the words as he told Bile he had just started running for Macalester's track team — and — would the coach be interested in meeting him one day?
"If I was lucky, I would get to see him even once," Mohamed remembers thinking.
The next day, Bile showed up at Mohamed's doorstep in St. Paul. That encounter started a friendship that the two say will continue for the rest of their lives.
When I sat down with them near the home of the Loppet Foundation, where Bile directs competitive running programs, organizes walks for seniors, and introduces Somali American families to cross-country skiing, the 59-year-old former Olympian assured me that the story I wanted to tell — about the power of mentoring — was not just about him.
"Mohamed's journey is very interesting, from where he started to where he is today — it's just incredible," Bile says. "You just see the resiliency of human beings, the struggles they go through, and how they survive if they don't give up."
But Bile's story is remarkable, too. Once a teen standout soccer player, he decided on a whim to join some nearby runners who were training for the 400-meter. He beat them to the finish line, but felt so woozy afterward that he threw up.
Within a week, however, he learned two things about running: If you were good enough, you could win a scholarship to attend college in the United States — and even advance to this thing called the Olympics. When he quit the soccer team, Bile told his coach: "I'm going to the Olympics. I'm going to get a scholarship. I'm going to America. Goodbye!"
Killer workouts and his initial disdain for running did not deter Bile. "I hated it. But I just saw an opportunity: This is my way out. This is my meal ticket."
Within just a few years, he cashed in on that ticket. He ran on an athletic scholarship at George Mason University in Virginia and competed in his first Olympics — the 1984 games in Los Angeles.
More than 35 years later, he saw echoes of himself — the dedication, the sense of purpose — when he got that phone call from the kid at Macalester.
Growing up in the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, Mohamed used to walk 4 kilometers to fetch water for his family. Whenever a blinking red light in the sky soared past, his mom used to point to the airplane and tell her son this would be his ride out of the camp.
And a scholarship was the only way to catch that ride.
With some diligence and luck, Mohamed earned a scholarship through Blue Rose Compass, a nonprofit that affords gifted young refugees a shot at a university education. It was through this gift that he was able to attend an international boarding school in New Mexico and then Macalester.
Unlike Bile, Mohamed never knew of Somalia's idyllic beaches or peaceful past, a land rich in history and culture. He was a kid born into civil war, only to learn of his homeland's halcyon days through stories imparted by his mom and dad.
"In their minds exists a grand country," he says. "And at the center of this country is Coach Abdi Bile."
"At least I had a country, a stable life," Bile muses. "This kid just grew up in a refugee camp. What hope do you have in a refugee camp? A refugee camp is a prison. You have to do whatever it takes to get out of those four walls."
When Mohamed first called Bile, he was on the cusp of giving up and going home. The second eldest of eight kids, he hadn't seen his family in five years. He was mourning the death of his uncle, who was struck by a stray bullet in Mohamed's hometown of Kismayo. His grades were slipping, and he was almost put on academic probation.
"I was starting to feel sorry for myself," Mohamed recalls. "I was questioning the decisions I made. It feels like you're living in a virtual reality — you have everything you need, but your family is still living in a refugee camp. I was willing to throw everything away."
With Bile he forged the kind of connection he couldn't find anywhere else. "What I needed was some tough love," Mohamed says.
"He needed my help," Bile says. "Right away, I could relate to what he's crying for, what his issues and problems are. Sometimes it's not a lot — sometimes the person just needs someone to talk to."
The hardest lap
Bile told Mohamed about his first days in the United States as a college student, so poor he couldn't cobble together the coins to do his laundry. Bile reminded Mohamed of all the people who were in his corner and invited Mohamed to Bile's training program for elite runners so he could meet other young Somalis working toward big dreams.
"In running, the hardest is the last lap," Bile tells me, recalling how he almost abandoned the sport because of injuries. After healing his body through yoga and acupuncture, Bile won a world championship in 1987.
"Sometimes people who quit, they don't know how close they were to the finish line," the coach adds.
Mohamed listened to his mentor: — Look what you came from. You're almost there. You're here, you're doing it. This is nothing compared to how far you've traveled — and kept putting one foot in front of the other.
His internships and work-study jobs helped pave the way for his family to leave the refugee camp and find an apartment in Nairobi. His siblings now are receiving the kind of education he had only dreamed of while in the camp.
And what about the kid who came so close to throwing it all away? Mohamed graduated from Macalester in December. No one in his family could be at the ceremony, but Abdi Bile, the hero of his parents' stories, showed up to watch Mohamed cross the stage. Bile says he wouldn't have missed it for anything.
Mohamed is now reverse-mentoring his coach, encouraging Bile to start an Instagram account so he may ignite a spark for other young people. This week, the recent college grad also started a job as a tech analyst for a global consulting firm with offices in Minneapolis.
As the two recap the highs and lows of the past couple of years, Bile dabs his wet eyes with a carefully folded tissue.
"You did it," he tells Mohamed. "You have a good job. You're going to take good care of your brothers and sisters."
The coach says he wants other young people, those who can trace a whiff of opportunity, to learn from this young man — that they should go ahead and be brave with their lives.
"Mohamed's story is a good story for our kids here," Bile adds.
"And so is a world champion helping his people," Mohamed counters. "How many people can say they have the greatest athlete in the history of their country rooting for them?"