NIGERIAN HURDLER RUNS ON DESPITE HER HEAVY HEART

SYDNEY, Australia — To look at her, so small, only 5-feet-1, you wonder how she gets those short legs over those high metal bars. A few weeks ago, Glory Alozie would have answered without hesitation. She would have said belief in God lifts her high, along with the love of her fiance and training partner, Nigerian sprinter Hyginus Anugo.

They were to be married early next year. Glory loved Hyginus. Hyginus loved Glory. But then, all of Nigeria loved Glory. Ranked second in the world in her specialty, the 100-meter hurdles, she is her nation’s best hope for its first Olympic victory in track. This year, with Hyginus by her side, all the lights seemed to be turning green for her. Soon, Glory would have a gold medal around her neck and a gold band on her finger. That is what she felt inside …

All that has changed now. The lights are no longer green. Today, in a gray, wet, mist, Glory dug her knuckles into the track, looked down her lane, and wondered not how she could lift her legs over those bars, but how she could lift her heart.

Hyginus is dead. He was killed a few weeks ago, right in Sydney. It was a Thursday night, he had just finished his evening prayers, and he ran out to a 7-Eleven near where he and his training partners were staying. He was going to get snacks for everyone. A bus driver slowed down to let him cross, and Hyginus waved back and darted across the street.

Perhaps he forgot that they drive on the left in Australia. Perhaps he simply didn’t see the speeding car until it plowed into him. But in one terrible instant — before the torch was even lit — death had visited the Olympics.

When the news reached Glory, it was as if her whole world caved in. She had been in Japan, in a pre-Olympic meet, and she left immediately because she had to be with Hyginus, she just had to be. She flew to Sydney not in anticipation of victory but in inconsolable grief.

“She did not want to do anything,” said Solomon Abari, the soft-spoken Nigerian coach who guided Anugo. “She did not want to compete. She and Hyginus were from the same village. They were both religious people. They were each other’s best friend.”

How do I get over this? It is a question for hurdlers and mourners.

At 22, Glory Alozie was suddenly both.

A series of hurdles

“Runners take your marks . . .”

Now, less than three weeks after Hyginus’ death, she looked down the track, and locked her stocky arms in place. This was the first heat of the 100-meter hurdles. The first time she could remember an important race where Hyginus was not cheering from the stands. She exhaled. A small gold locket hung around her neck, the shape of a heart.

It was Glory who had asked for Hyginus to be in Sydney. He had been one of eight Nigerian sprinters training for the 4×400 relay team. But when Nigeria decided to send only six men to Sydney, Hyginus was No. 7. He was going to be left behind. But because Glory needed him, and because she meant so much to Nigeria’s hopes, at her request, Hyginus was allowed to travel to Sydney, to stay with Glory and her coach, to support her through the biggest moment in her career.

Now Glory wondered what if she hadn’t asked for that? Might he still be alive? Is it my fault?

How do I get over this?

The gun fired. And Glory ran. She cleared the first hurdle, cleared the second, her arms pumping steadily, her gaze locked straight …

“When you lose someone in Nigeria,” Abari says, “all of the people in your village gather around you, to show you love, and to remind you that this is the will of God. It is not for us to question: ‘Why did this happen?’ We can only give glory to God.”

Over the third hurdle now, and the fourth, and the fifth, her steps in choppy rhythm, perfectly measured for the distance between the hurdles …

“What we believe, what she must believe,” Abari says, “is that Hyginus left us to live up to a higher purpose . . .”

Sixth hurdle, seventh hurdle, a half-step lead over the Cuban challenger on her left and the French challenger on her far right …

“Glory is our best hope. She could open the gate for us. She believes that Hyginus would want her to run . . .”

Eighth hurdle, ninth hurdle, the 10th and final hurdle — cleared — and now a dash for the tape, the Cuban trailing, the Frenchwoman trailing …

“Glory will do her best. She is running for Hyginus. She will do it to honor him . . .”

First place.

Two races to go

The Olympic Games are so huge, so widespread, so massively viewed and internationally celebrated, that it is possible, as you watch them, to believe the competitors are some kind of Greek gods, beyond pain, impervious to the slings and arrows of human frailty.

And then along comes Glory Alozie, fighting tears as she walks back from the finish line. She waves gamely to her teammates in the stands. And you realize a heart is a heart. It can break anywhere, even on the biggest track in the world.

“Could you help but think about Hyginus when you started?” I asked Alozie in the tunnel after her race today (Sunday night in Detroit).

“I am thinking of him,” she said, forcing a smile. “And I am thinking God will take care of everything.

“I have had many messages and much support. They help me a lot. I thought about not running, yes, but (Hyginus) and I really wanted to be here. We were always together, in training and in meets.

“So I believe God is taking care of everything. This is what I must think now. Otherwise, if I think too much . . .”

She waved a small hand by her eyes, and bit her lip. That was all she could say without crying.

When her parents named her Glory, they also gave her a middle name, “Oluchi.” It means “the work of God.” Now, sadly, she must accept the implications of that name, even as she wonders why something divine would leave her in so much pain.

She pulled at the locket around her neck and walked down the tunnel, one-third of the way through an Olympic quest that she thought would be much different. She was counting on two hearts to carry her through these Games. Now one of those is gone, and the other is heavy with grief.

How do I get over this? By relying on the strongest emotion of all. Eight women flew over those hurdles today. Most were running for glory.

The one named Glory was running for love.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). And catch Mitch’s Olympic TV reports on “The Early Show,” 7-9 a.m. weekdays on CBS (Channel 62 in Detroit).

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