Surrounded by the ravages of a civil war in Sudan 20 years ago, the parents of emerging Canadian track star Marco Arop could never have imagined this life for their son.
But their decision to escape the unrest that ravaged their home country for a better life in Canada has allowed not only Marco to thrive, but the rest of the family of eight as well.
At the beginning of July, Arop’s parents, mother Aluel Lual and father Rau Arop, were bursting with pride as they watched Marco run to victory in the 800 metres in the pre world invitational championships at Foote Field in Edmonton, the city the family now makes its home.
Watch live coverage of the World Athletics Championship July 15-24 exclusively on cbcsports.ca, the CBC Sports App and CBC Gem.
Marco stopped the clock in a time of one minute 43.61 seconds, a track record and the third-fastest time anyone has run the event this year.
To put forward that performance with family and friends watching, as a final tune-up ahead of this month’s world championships in Eugene, Ore., was as good as it could get for the 23-year-old.
“They don’t get to see me race often, but whenever they do it is nice to see them around,” Marco said recently. “I find it interesting because I know some families are heavily involved in athletics and my family supports me. But it’s nice to be able to go home and I don’t think about track.
“I can go home and I can just be a part of the family.”
WATCH | Marco Arop is heating up for world championships:
That run in Edmonton is one of Marco’s most impressive 800-metres ever, about a half-second shy of his personal-best time 1:43.26, and came a week after he won the national championships in Langley, B.C., in a time of 1:44.39.
“It was my first time watching him run in Edmonton. The whole family and everybody here in Edmonton is so happy about it,” Aluel told CBC Sports. “He’s representing Canada. I think he’s doing very good and we are so proud of him for what he’s doing.”
Equally proud is Rau, who knew at a young age Marco was destined for athletic greatness.
“All of our family and community members were there to see him. We were yelling and we were so excited,” he said. “Marco was special in his own ways when he was young. He was smart and very quiet. He was careful with what he was doing since he was a kid.
“That let us know in his future he was going to be special.”
Fled civil war in Sudan
In those early years, however, that future was laced with uncertainty and fear from a decades long civil war. In the 1990s, Aluel and Rau moved their young family from Abyei, which was in heart of disputed territory, to the safer confines of the country’s capital of Khartoum. It was there Marco was born in 1998, the family’s fourth son.
“It was a scary life. All of our people went through a scary life. We didn’t feel we had a future,” Rau said. “The civil war makes a human being scared. We needed to find stability.”
Unfortunately, they didn’t find it in Khartoum and after three years in Egypt, the family was presented with the option to move to Canada. It was during a conversation with a Canadian official that solidified the family’s decision to move to Saskatoon.
“The Canadian representative interviewed us and he told us you have four boys and that there would be a good life for our kids. We appreciated his words. As parents we were so concerned for our kids, so when we said that we accepted right away,” Rau said of their move in the early 2000s.
Rau knew English but Aluel did not, making it challenging for her to find work in Saskatoon. After spending a couple of years in the prairie city, the family, now eight after the birth of two more boys, moved to Edmonton.
“It was difficult because when we came to Canada I didn’t know English. It was a new life,” Aluel said. “But I thank Canada. You can get help anywhere you go.
“Life was busy but we are happy. We are blessed with a beautiful family. We have six boys. Our life is beautiful and we feel so blessed. A big family is good, especially where we come from.”
Marco marvels at his mother, who endured all of the upheaval while raising six boys.
“She’s probably the strongest person I know,” he said.
Didn’t start competitive running until he was 16
Being the middle child of six boys helped prepare Marco for the battles he engages in as he speeds across the track.
“You can imagine what growing up with six boys in the house was like. We got pretty competitive,” he said.
During elementary school in Edmonton, Marco ran but mostly as a hobby. In high school, he was a basketball star, his 6-foot-3 frame towering over the other competitors.
“He’s still new in track and field. His skill was basketball but he would run in elementary school. He was the best basketball player in his school. But at the end of Grade 12 he was encouraged by a coach to start running,” Rau recalled.
In a lot of ways that’s what makes Marco’s story even more remarkable. He didn’t really get serious about track until 2016.
Natural athletic talent, a willingness to learn and adapt, as well as an incredible work ethic has allowed him to achieve the success he has in a short amount of time.
One could not believe an immigrant boy could become a star in the country and the world.– Marco Arop’s father, Rau
“It all happened pretty quickly, but it was almost like a step I had to complete to get to the next,” Marco said. “So by the time I made my first world championship team in Doha in 2019, I sort of felt like I had taken all the necessary steps to get to that point and then eventually getting up to the Olympics.”
From the junior national team in 2017 to the world championships in 2019 to the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021, Marco has been getting faster every step of the way.
And his parents have been in awe of their son’s journey throughout.
“He is incredible. Marco is an incredible boy. He is a special boy,” Rau said. “We are really blessed the way Marco came all the way from Africa to Canada, one could not believe an immigrant boy could become a star in the country and the world.”
Aluel is not only impressed by his athleticism, but the way Marco carries himself off the track.
“He’s a wonderful boy. He’s a happy boy. All of them in the family are like that. Especially Marco. He’s always smiling,” she said. “We are really proud of him.”
His resume is stacked with memorable performances, including winning gold at the 2017 Canadian U20 championships. A year later, while attending Mississippi State University, Marco finished second at the NCAA Division I championships.
WATCH | Marco Arop wins Diamond League event in Birmingham:
In the summer of 2019, Marco captured gold at the Pan Am Games in Lima, setting a new Games record in the 800m with a time of 1:44.25. He then went on to compete at his first worlds, finishing seventh in Doha, Qatar.
In his Olympic debut last summer, Marco fell short of his goal of advancing to the final, fading in the final metres of his semifinal. He has used that disappointment as an opportunity to learn and grow.
In May, he won the 800m in a Diamond League event in Birmingham, England, which will play host to the Commonwealth Games July 28-Aug.8.
“It definitely was a confidence builder to win in Birmingham just because it sort of reinforces and confirms that if I trust my instincts in a race, if I go out and not worry too much about the outcome and just allow it to play itself out, good things will happen. And that’s exactly what happened there,” he said.
That’s the mentality Marco is taking into worlds, removing expectations of outcome and focusing on trusting himself and his body in every race he competes in. Should he do that, Marco says good things will happen.
His parents agree and will be watching back home from Edmonton. And there will be many more eyes on the 23-year-old watching from where this journey all began.
“Marco has made us so proud as Sudanese, South Sudanese and as Canadians. We’re all so proud,” Rau said. “Even my community back home is watching. They’re all watching in South Sudan.”