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Meseret Defar wandered 9,149 miles from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to make her first appearance at the Carlsbad 5000 in 2002. She was 18.
The first time Deanna Sodoma raced at the event she traveled all of 5.6 miles. But in truth, Sodoma’s path to Carlsbad was much more arduous than Defar’s.
Saturday morning after the Junior Carlsbad children’s races, Defar and Sodoma, women from opposite sides of the world, one a two-time Olympic gold medalist from Africa, the other an American wheelchair racer, will be inducted into the Carlsbad 5000 Hall of Fame.
Here’s a closer look at the two women.
Defar has raced at Carlsbad six times and will compete again Sunday. She was 11th in her 2002 debut as an 18-year-old. Then came a fifth in 2003, third in 2004 and victories 2006, 2007 and 2010.
She set the outdoor 5K world record during her 2006 victory, winning in 14 minutes, 46 seconds.
Her 5,000-meter Olympic gold medals came in 2004 at Athens and 2012 in London. She earned bronze at the 2008 Beijing Games.
“As a race organizer she is everything that you ever dream of,” said Tracy Sundlun, Carlsbad 5000 executive director. “She came here in her first year as a developing junior athlete as a request from some of our coach and athlete friends in Ethiopia.
“She finishes 11th. She didn’t make a dime. Two years later she’s the Olympic champion at 5,000 meters. She has come back, and we’ve been intertwined ever since.”
Defar was particularly close to the late Mike Long, who recruited professional runners for the Carlsbad 5000 and Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. Long died in 2007.
“In 2010, when Meseret received the Mike Long trophy for winning Carlsbad, she had tears in her eyes,” Sundlun said. “I’m hopeful that when she receives her Hall of Fame award, which is a duplicate of that Mike Long trophy, she will have tears in her eyes again.”
Defar was moved about being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“I can’t believe 10 years have passed since I set the world record in Carlsbad,” said Defar, who’s now 32 and became a mother last year. “A lot has happened to me on and off the track since then, but it remains a race which is close to my heart.”
The year was 1989. Sodoma was 21 years old. Before being hit by a car while cycling six months earlier, Sodoma was living the active Southern California lifestyle—running, racing triathlons, attending college.
“Like every 21-year-old,” said Sodoma, now 48, who lives in Escondido and is the mother of three boys.
After the bike accident, numbness in Sodoma’s legs crept up her body until March 9, 1989, when she could no longer walk, the result of a spinal cord condition.
“My dead leg anniversary,” she calls the day.
Steve Scott, America’s greatest miler and winner of the first three Carlsbad 5000s, talked to patients rehabbing at Tri-City Medical Center days before the 1989 Carlsbad 5000 and a wild idea crept into Sodoma’s head.
“I wonder if I could get out of here and do this race?” she asked herself.
Granted a 12-hour pass, Sodoma made it from the hospital to the Carlsbad 5000 start line and pushed her way across the 3.1-mile course.
“I think it took me an hour,” she said.
Sodoma developed into one of the United States’ best female wheelchair racers, winning bronze medals at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona in the 10,000 and marathon. While Sodoma excelled at long distances, she earned her share of gold at Carlsbad, too, winning seven times, the last in 2002. She set four world records at Carlsbad.
Regarding the Hall of Fame honor, Sodoma said, “It’s nice to be recognized. It’s very heartwarming. I feel honored.”
As to what motivated her after losing the use of her legs, Sodoma said, “I wasn’t finished. I knew my story wasn’t finished.”
Today, she snorkels, water skis, snow skis and has jumped out of an airplane.
“I think it’s in my DNA,” Sodoma said. “We’re Norwegian. We’re like grrrrrrr. We conquer and take over and compete.”