Canada’s Marco Arop met his middle-distance hero — now, he wants to surpass him

There’s that old adage, never meet your heroes. 

Except when Canadian middle-distance runner Marco Arop actually did, it was everything he could have imagined. And maybe more. 

Last August in Budapest, after Arop’s breakthrough performance to become the first Canadian to win world championship 800-metre gold, the Edmonton runner was getting ready for the medal ceremony. 

He could have never prepared himself for what happened next. There he was, David Rudisha, presenting Arop his gold medal.

“I don’t usually get star-struck but seeing him there, realizing how massive he has been in my journey, I had so many thoughts and so many questions,” Arop told CBC Sports.

Now, Arop has his eyes set on breaking Rudisha’s 800 world record, a pursuit that continues in earnest at the first Diamond League event in China this Saturday.

WATCH | Arop captures world championship gold in men’s 800:

Canada’s Marco Arop speeds to 800m gold at the worlds

The Edmonton runner captured Canada’s first-ever gold medal in the 800 meters after a dominant second lap.

To understand the significance and weight of that experience for Arop, meeting Rudisha for the first time, you have to rewind to 11 years earlier. 

Arop was starting to get serious about his running career — a somewhat later start, as he was already in Grade 12 and had been playing basketball, but he wanted to see where running might be able to take him. 

Arop says he turned to YouTube to look up how to run the perfect 800, and it made sense to him that if he was going to try to become the best, he should probably start watching footage from the greatest 800-metre race in the history of the sport. 

That just happens to be the 2012 Olympic final in London. Rudisha, a Kenyan middle-distance runner, had set the world record in the distance two years prior to those Games.

But on a calm, still August night at Olympic Stadium in London, in front of a roaring, sold-out crowd, Rudisha put forward one of the most iconic performances in the sport’s history.

His 6-foot-two-inch frame powered out of the blocks, and like he had so many times throughout his career, Rudisha blasted to the front. He led from start to finish in what still is the fastest Olympic final ever in the event.

Rudisha broke his own world record that night with a time of one minute 40.91 seconds to become Olympic champion. And seven out of the eight runners in that race all set personal-best times. There were three national records broken — every finishing time was the fastest recorded for each placing and it marked the first time all eight athletes ran under 1:44 in the same race.

Arop has watched that race countless times and still marvels at Rudisha and all the other runners when he thinks about it today. It became the blueprint of how Arop was going to run the race.

WATCH | Arop chasing greatness: 

Marco Arop chases greatness

From his training base in the deep American south, Canadian works to be the best 800-metre runner in the world.

So then imagine that moment for Arop — after having modelled everything about how he was going to run the 800 after Rudisha – to not only be meeting Rudisha for the first time at the world championships, but having it be when Arop won his first gold medal.

“I was just amazed. I told him how happy I was to see him and told him how important he was to me. It was so special,” Arop said.

“Meeting the world-record holder and having him present me with my gold medal — it’s moments like that where you’re questioning if this is all real. The sequence of events in those two days feels made up. It’s unbelievable.”

Rudisha sees stardom in Arop

What Arop might not have been able to fully comprehend in that moment is that while this was a first meeting, Rudisha had been well-aware of the Canadian for years. He still loves the sport, still watches all of the events, and of course he always has an eye on the next great 800 runners who are still coming all these years later for his world record. 

“The first time I saw him running in the Diamond League, he’s such a great athlete. I believe he has so much potential,” Rudisha said.

“He has the posture. The structure. He is tall. He has a very beautiful stride. I know he’s a very talented runner. I saw him early in his career running from the front. Very aggressive.”

As Rudisha continues to describe Arop’s style, he pauses for a moment only to realize he’s describing exactly how he ran the race, and how people described him. 

They’re nearly the same height and identical weight. They both have this unmistakable poise and power on the track. And Rudisha and Arop both love running from the front and putting pressure on their opponents. 

“He’s one of the athletes I believe will take the 800 metres to a different level,” Rudisha said. 

WATCH | Arop, and the gift of running:

Marco Arop, and the gift of running

In the unlikely backdrop of Starkville, Mississippi, Canadian runner Marco Arop finds peace and solace in the place he calls home.

He’s had a relatively successful indoor season — dropping his personal indoor 800 record and then eight days later nearly breaking the indoor 1,000 world record. 

Arop is the Canadian outdoor 800 record holder with a time of 1:42.85.

The key to Arop’s success over the last eight months since winning his first world championship in August is that he’s remained healthy while prioritizing key training blocks.

“I’m healthy. If I’m able to compete the way I did last season, I can do even better things,” Arop said. 

“I’m feeling really good and staying healthy is the biggest thing. Sometimes these major championships come down to who’s the healthiest.”

Aiming to peak at Olympics

The 25-year-old has staggered his competition schedule to ensure he’s getting quality races in but also getting periods of rest before the biggest stage of them all — the 2024 Paris Olympics, now less than 100 days away. 

“The opportunities might not come back again. This might be my best shot to win an Olympic championship and I have to take every step I can to make sure I’m in the right position to do that,” Arop said. 

Rudisha is giving Arop a vote of confidence as this season looms. He believes that if the Canadian continues on this trajectory that Arop might just flirt — or if the stars align — surpass Rudisha’s world record.

And interestingly, just like Arop is doing this year in being smart about his schedule, Rudisha did the same thing leading up to the 2012 Olympics. 

“That year I was focusing on being at my best at the Olympics,” he said. 

“When you’re fit enough, you can run fast and you increase your chances of winning races. That’s what he’s doing. He needs to focus on the Olympics. To see young guys like Marco taking off like that, it reminds me of when I was coming up in athletics.”

WATCH | Arop’s Canadian-record 800m run at 2023 Diamond League Final:

Edmonton’s Marco Arop breaks 800m Canadian record to finish 2nd in Diamond League Final

Reigning world champion Marco Arop broke Brandon McBride’s Canadian record, running the men’s 800-metre race in a time of 1:42.85, to finish second behind Kenya’s Emmanuel Wanyonyi in the Diamond League Final in Eugene, Ore.

Arop in some ways still thinks this is all just a dream. That the athlete he shaped everything about how he approached this sport now believes in him. 

“He set the standard. One of the best performances on the most important stages. I’m pretty speechless,” Arop said. 

“To hear something like that means the world to me and it reaffirms I’m on the right path. If I can keep putting in the work I might get to his level. Just hearing that, I think that motivates me to keep working harder.” 

Rudisha flashes a smile when asked about what’s possible for Arop this year and into the future, knowing that he played an interesting role in the Canadian’s success. 

“It feels really special to know that I’ve inspired Marco and other athletes. Sometimes we do things in our career when we are young that will inspire others and don’t really realize the impact we’re having,” Rudisha said. 

“Canada has produced some great 800-metre runners. To see Marco coming and continuing the tradition, it’s really great.”

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