Marco Aropof Edmonton exploded 10 days ago representing Mississippi State University in Nashville, TN at the NCAA Championships with an outdoor personal best of 1:45.25 in the 800m. This Edmontonian won the Canadian U20 800m gold medal in Ottawa and then took the Pan Am U20 silver in Peru last summer. This 1.91m and 75kg relative newcomer to track ended the outdoor season with personal bests of 1:47.08 in the 800m and 47.65 in the 400m. Now as a 20 year old he has moved down to 47.39 and 1:45.25
His NCAA mark ranks him 2nd in the world list in the 800m for 20 year olds this season. Will he provide a challenge for reigning Canadian Champion Brandon McBride of Windsor who ironicly graduated from Mississippi State University one year ago.
By Brian Towey
When Marco Arop arrived in Trujillo, Perú, for the Pan American U20 Championships, it was on the tail end of a remarkable season.
An 800-meter specialist, the 18-year old from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, had risen quickly in a year and a half.
He started as a 2:04 runner at Blessed Oscar Romero High School, eschewed a basketball scholarship, found his way to coach Ron Thompson at the Edmonton-based Voléo Athletic Club and whittled his time down to 1:49 before verbally committing to Mississippi State. Pending a successful SAT score this month, he plans to enroll in January.
But in July, far from his home in Canada, Arop faced a new test: handle the best U20 runners in North and South America, and namely a runner from Puerto Rico named Ryan Sanchez.
“I looked at the seeds for the race and saw that (Sanchez) had run 1:45,” said Arop, who entered the meet running 1:49.95.
“I was like, ‘OK, I’ll run for second place.’”
But in the semifinal, Arop surprised himself, staying in contact with Sanchez while smoothly running 1:49.
“That was probably the best feeling I ever had,” Arop said. “I felt really relaxed.”
Arop was confident he could run with Sanchez in the final. But on that day, Sanchez immediately took charge.
“The Puerto Rican took it out,” Thompson said. “Marco followed carefully behind.”
It became a two-man race. About 600 meters in, Arop made a move.
“There was a point in that race where I think I could have pushed harder,” Arop said.
Sanchez responded, but Arop did not lose contact. The two rolled down the backstretch, Sanchez one and Arop two.
“If there was a little more room, (Arop) might have gotten him,” Thompson said.
The coach panned toward the scoreboard at Trujillo’s Manische Stadium. It read: Sanchez 1:46.51, Arop 1:47.08.
Both Arop and Sanchez had broken the meet record of 1:47.85 held by Brazil’s Joaquim Cruz, the 1984 Olympic 800 gold medalist.
“I’ll be honest with you, I probably didn’t see this coming so quickly,” Thompson said. “I expected good progress and great results, but it went to another level.”
Arop’s parents come from Abyei, a region of Sudan which straddles North and South Sudan.
In 1983, the Second Sudanese Civil War broke out when Jaarar Nimeri, then the president of Sudan, abrogated a peace treaty from the first Sudanese Civil War and tried to turn Sudan into a Muslim Arab State where Islamic law, also known as Sharia, would rule. The war, fought between the government and multiple rebel groups, lasted from 1983-2005 and displaced over 4 million people, according to PBS.org.
As a result, Arop’s parents were forced to flee Abyei and go to Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, and largest city. In 2000, when Marco was 2, they emigrated to Egypt, along with his three brothers.
“The reason we came to Canada was to leave the country in any way possible,” Arop said. “My dad was hoping to go to the U.S. But this was in 2002, right after 9/11, and the U.S. wasn’t allowing many refugees from Muslim countries.
“I think Canada seemed like the best option. Either Canada or Finland.”
Marco was 4 when his parents and three brothers moved from Khartoum to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, where his father had family.
“The community was good,” Arop said. “Everybody's connected. We go by tribes. I’m from the Dinka tribe.”
Two years later the family moved to Edmonton, where there were stronger ties to the tribe.
Marco was primarily a basketball player through high school. At 6 feet 4, he often played center. He was good enough to earn a scholarship offer from a local college in Edmonton. However, during his final year of high school, track and field became a new interest.
“The track coach had tried for years to get me to run on the team because I was tall, but I never wanted to do it,” Arop said. “Finally, when I was a senior, he convinced me to do it.”
In Edmonton, track athletes have an indoor season and a brief outdoor season. Arop took a spot on the outdoor track team in the spring of 2016. Then, during a mini-meet in which he ran the 400 meters, his fortunes began to turn.
Thompson, a coach with Voléo Athletic Club, was there that day. A Jamaica native, Thompson had emigrated to Canada in 1978 to follow his wife and had served as a track coach at the University of Alberta for 21 years, following a youth spent long jumping at Kingston College in Jamaica.
“He was tall. He was fast,” Thompson recalled. “He was more a 400-meter type runner with speed and endurance.”
Marco ran 51.2 that day and began training with Thompson and the Voléo athletes. After running a 2:04 800 prior to joining, he quickly broke his PR.
“The first time he went through the 400 in 58 seconds,” Thompson said. “I said, ‘Let’s try 57 this time, and he broke his PR by four seconds, 2:00.01.”
That set off a cascade of improvements. He finished the season in June 2016, running 1:53.16 at the Alberta Provincial Championships.
“I’ve never trained for anything like track and field,” Arop said. “That was a big change from before. We did a lot of hill workouts and weightlifting, which I’d never done before.”
Arop closed his season strongly, but a major decision waited. He still had a college scholarship offer for basketball, if he wanted to take it.
“He said, ‘What would you do?’” Thompson said. “I said, I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen you play basketball before, but based on what I’ve seen, I think you have a better chance getting ahead with your track career.”
With the support of his parents, Arop decided to take a year off, to see where his track training with Thompson and Voléo took him. He retook some classes from his high school and got a part-time job at Champs Sports.
“As soon as track came I saw better opportunities arising,” Arop said. “I thought it’d be a better choice for me.”
Thompson and Arop began building toward the 2017 outdoor season.
“The focus wasn’t on excelling in a big way indoors, but to prepare for a very successful outdoor season,” Thompson said.
Arop won two 600-meter races indoors. Then the outdoor competition began.
He opened the season at 1:53.60. One race later, he touched the 1:50 mark. Soon he had dipped to 1:49, a time he would hit with consistency.
“Really the competitor in me came back when I ran track,” Arop said.
Arop began receiving interest from American colleges. Prior to Perú, he committed to run at Mississippi State, the former home of Canadian NCAA Division 1 800 champion Brandon McBride.
“(Mississippi State) contacted me in June,” Arop said. “It was after I’d run 1:49 once. ... One huge thing (assistant coach Michael Woods) actually came to my house to recruit me. And that was before I ran 1:47.”
Looking back, Arop feels he made the right move.
“Ron made a really convincing argument (to run track),” Arop said.
Following his duels with Sanchez, and his new, 1:47 PR, there is a new outlook.
“He has won everything locally and nationally,” Thompson said. “Coming out of his comfort zone (in Perú), in a new arena, a new environment, higher level of competition – how will he handle it? I think he answered the question.”
Thompson is confident his runner will ascend to an even higher level among world-class competitors. It’s a bold proposition for a relative newcomer to the sport, and adds excitement to see what may come.
“I just had the will to get better every day,” Arop said. “I think that’s been pushing me forward. I think it will continue for years to come.”
Top Twenty Canadian Indoor Performances 2018 to January 21