From Comoros Islands, An Olympian Clears Hurdles On And Off The Track

Aug 12, 2016
Originally published on August 12, 2016 9:55 am

For all the superstar athletes at the Rio Olympics — the ones with cushy endorsement deals and worldwide fame — there are many more who never find the limelight, who will never even come close to getting a medal.

They compete for the sheer honor of it. For national pride. And for reasons all their own.

Among that group is a hurdler with a remarkable backstory.

I happened to find Maoulida Daroueche at the Olympic athletes village. He was wearing a green and white track suit with "Comoros" in red letters across the back, and we got to talking in English and French.

"Each athlete has his own story," he told me. "So this is my story. Voilà!"

Daroueche is one of just four athletes competing in Rio from the Comoros, a tiny Indian Ocean archipelago off the southeast coast of Africa.

"We are a small country," Daroueche says, "so we need to show [our] best, to give the best part of us, even though we don't have the really, really high level. We need to show the world that we exist also."

Daroueche, 25, will compete Monday in the 400-meter hurdles. His best time in the event wouldn't be fast enough to qualify him for the Olympics, but each sport allows slots for top athletes from small countries.

"Deep down inside me," he says, "no matter what I do, I can't forget where I come from."

This is the second Olympics for Daroueche; he competed in London in 2012 and was eliminated in the first round.

It's a remarkable achievement for anyone, but especially so when you consider the obstacles that once stood in Daroueche's way.

For starters, in the Comoros, there is no track to practice on.

Instead, as a child, he would go outside and run for miles on the beach.

"As a Comorian," he tells me, "the easiest thing is to run long distance, because you don't need equipment. You can just run."

For Daroueche, maybe running provided a way to escape a difficult childhood.

He gets a faraway look when I ask him about his life growing up.

"My childhood?" he replies. "That's a part of my life that I try to forget."

But bit by bit, his story comes out.

Daroueche tells me he doesn't know anything about his father.

"He was never there when I needed him. For me, it's really sad. But," he shrugs, "it doesn't matter."

His mother had eight children, two of whom died young. She was struggling to raise the rest on her own.

Daroueche was the oldest, and he left his home when he was just 8 years old.

"You just learn how to manage on your own," he says.

His main goal each day was to find something to eat and a place to sleep.

"Where I come from," he says, "you really don't need a house to sleep in. So we slept everywhere." He would forage for food in the fields.

His running prowess got him noticed. He won cross-country races in school, and when he was 15, he got a break that would change his life. A gym teacher offered him the chance to go live and study in the south of France: a country that Comorians imagined as El Dorado.

Daroueche took that chance. A French family took him in.

In France, everything was different. He no longer had to scrounge for food. He wasn't hungry all the time.

In school, he started running track, and this young man who had overcome so many obstacles found he excelled at hurdles.

He pushed himself through high school and college "to assure my future," he says, "and so my children don't have the same life that I had."

Still, life as an immigrant in France was hard.

He battled constant visa problems. Everything was expensive. To pay the rent, he found jobs as a deliveryman and a garbage collector. Sometimes, he'd work until 4 in the morning and have to be at school just a few hours later.

With such a punishing schedule, it was hard to find time to train in his sport.

But he persevered. "It builds character," he tells me.

Now, this Comorian who has built a new life in Salon-de-Provence, France, has earned his master's degree in computer science and won a spot in the Olympics.

"That's why I'm really, really happy to be here," he tells me. "Because every time I think about what I have done before to come here — even though I'm not one of those in the hunt for a medal — knowing everything I've gone through, just to be here is already a victory."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

For all the superstar athletes at the Rio Olympics, the ones with cushy endorsement deals, there are many more who never find the limelight, who will never come close to getting a medal. They compete for the sheer honor of it, for national pride and for reasons all their own. NPR's Melissa Block brings us this story of one athlete who came up from nothing and who competes in hurdles.

DAROUECHE MAOULIDA: (Speaking French).

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: I happened to find Daroueche Maoulida at the Olympic athletes' village. He was wearing a green-and-white tracksuit with Comoros in red letters across the back, and we got to talking in English and French.

MAOULIDA: Each athlete has his own story, so this is my story, voila.

BLOCK: Turns out, he's one of just four athletes competing here in Rio from the Comoros Islands, a tiny archipelago off the southeast of Africa in the Indian Ocean.

MAOULIDA: So we need to show to the world that we exist also.

BLOCK: Daroueche is 25. He competes Monday in the 400-meter hurdles, and to understand what's so remarkable about that, listen to what he told me about his homeland.

MAOULIDA: The problem that we have is that just we don't have track.

BLOCK: You don't have a track.

MAOULIDA: No.

BLOCK: There's not a single track.

MAOULIDA: No track, no track.

BLOCK: So how in the world do you become an Olympic hurdler if your country doesn't even have a track to practice on? To answer that, let's go back to his childhood in the Comoros when he would go outside, go to the beach and run and run.

MAOULIDA: (Speaking French).

BLOCK: As a Comorian, he says, the easiest thing is to run long distance because you don't need equipment. You can just run, and maybe running was a way to escape.

MAOULIDA: (Speaking French).

BLOCK: My childhood, he says with a faraway look, that's a part of my life that I try to forget. But bit by bit, his story comes out. Daroueche tells me he doesn't know anything about his father.

MAOULIDA: No. He was never there when I needed him, so for me, it's really sad, but it doesn't matter.

BLOCK: His mother had eight children, two of whom died young. She was struggling to raise the rest. Daroueche was the oldest. And he left his home when he was just 8 years old. You just learn how to manage on your own, he explains. His main goal each day was to find something to eat and a place to sleep.

MAOULIDA: (Laugher, speaking French).

BLOCK: Where I come from, he says, you really don't need a house to sleep in, so we slept everywhere. His running got him noticed. He won cross-country races in school, and when he was 15, a gym teacher offered him the chance to go live in the south of France. He took that chance. A French family took him in.

MAOULIDA: (Speaking French).

BLOCK: Everything was different. He no longer had to scrounge for food. In school, he started running track, and this young man who had overcome so many obstacles found he excelled at hurdles. He pushed himself through high school and college.

MAOULIDA: (Speaking French).

BLOCK: To assure my future, he says, and so my children don't have the same life that I had. Still, life as an immigrant in France was hard. He found jobs as a delivery man and a garbage collector. Sometimes he'd work till 4 in the morning and have to be at school just a few hours later. Now, he's earned his master's in computer science, and he's won a spot in the Olympics.

MAOULIDA: That's why really - I'm really, really happy to be here because every time I think about what I have done before to come here, I can say (speaking French).

BLOCK: For me, he says, even though I'm not one of those in the hunt for a medal, knowing everything I've gone through just to be here is already a victory.

MAOULIDA: (Speaking French).

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.