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Three days after becoming a U.S. citizen, she will run to become a U.S. Olympian

Weini Kelati, right, runs the 5,000 meters for New Mexico at the 2019 NCAA outdoor championships. (Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos/Getty Images)

This story has been updated.

The first time she traveled to Eugene, Ore., Weini Kelati called her family and told them she was not coming home. Kelati, then 17, competed for Eritrea at the 2014 world junior track and field championships. She also resolved to make a new life for herself. When her return flight departed, Kelati made sure she was not on it.

On Thursday, Kelati boarded another flight to Eugene. This time, it was to compete Saturday at the U.S. Olympic trials. Three days after she became a U.S. citizen, Kelati intends to run 10,000 meters around an oval track and become a U.S. Olympian.

Kelati’s path began with a daring decision and wrenching sacrifice. It continued in suburban Virginia, where she settled with a relative and became a cross-country star, and in college at New Mexico, where she made 13 All-America teams. And her opportunity Saturday happened only after a bureaucratic tangle shook loose at the last minute with help from a U.S. senator and the country’s top badminton official, who also happens to be a renowned immigration lawyer.

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The past few days have been a whirlwind for Kelati, whose times and accomplishments suggest she could be one of the top three finishers in the 10,000 meters and thus earn a bid to the Tokyo Olympics. On Thursday afternoon, Kelati spoke briefly over the phone from Albuquerque, the city she calls home. She was at the airport, about to catch a flight and take the next step in a remarkable life.

“I still now cannot process it,” Kelati said. “I just keep asking myself, ‘Is it real?’ It’s amazing.”

She was going back to the place where her American journey had started. In past media interviews, Kelati has shared little about her early life in Eritrea. It would have been a difficult place from which to launch an athletic career. Human rights groups consider Eritrea’s government one of the most repressive in the world, and thousands attempt to flee and seek asylum every year. Travel abroad is severely restricted, and the regime does not allow people to leave the country without permission, according to Amnesty International.

After the 2014 world juniors, Kelati knew she wasn’t going back. She instead went to live with Amlesom Teklai, her third cousin, in Leesburg. Teklai had been a 1997 All-Met runner at West Potomac and ran collegiately at Stephen F. Austin. He became Kelati’s legal guardian and enrolled her at Heritage High.

Teklai buttonholed Heritage Coach Doug Gilbert at a practice and told him Kelati’s story. Gilbert did some research and realized Kelati was more than just another runner. He welcomed her to the team, and she started running past everybody, coaches included. In her junior season, The Washington Post named Kelati its All-Met girls’ cross-country runner of the year.

“I always told them, ‘One day, I’ll be at the Olympics to represent the United States,’ ” Kelati said. “I’m so excited to represent my people. I would like to say, thank you so much for your support and making me feel loved.”

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Kelati, now 24, validated her world-class ambitions by winning two national championships at New Mexico. She turned professional and joined the Dark Sky Distance running club. Early this year, Kelati met the Olympic qualifying standard for the 10,000 meters. Yet her citizenship process became a sticking point.

“Three days ago, I didn’t know if they were going to let me race,” Kelati said. “Yesterday, I figured it out. I was like, ‘Wow.’ It’s just, like, insane.”

For years, the question of when Kelati would become a citizen did not appear relevant to her Olympic pursuits. She would become eligible Feb. 16, 2021, which meant the Tokyo Games weren’t possible. When the pandemic postponed the Olympics by a year, Kelati had a chance to compete for the United States earlier than expected.

Lawyer Jonathan Little started working with Kelati through New Mexico Coach Joe Franklin. Franklin had coached at Butler in the 2000s when Little ran for Indiana. “We drank a lot of beer with Butler guys,” said Little, who competed at the 2008 U.S. trials.

Little anticipated Kelati’s citizenship process would be simple. They started working in late 2019, which should have provided more than enough time. The only thing Little mentioned was that becoming a citizen would prevent her from trying to represent another country in the Games.

“She absolutely didn’t care,” Little said. “She was going to compete for the United States or nobody.”

As February elapsed and March wore on, Kelati received no notice from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Little started to wonder what had happened. When he contacted the Albuquerque office of USCIS, he figured it out.

“The only piece we were missing were these damn fingerprints,” Little said.

In 2017, Kelati had been fingerprinted to update her green card. Those fingerprints were in Washington at the National Benefits Center, which operates under the USCIS umbrella. The Albuquerque office needed them so it could match them with Kelati’s most recent fingerprints.

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As much as the local office tried to help, Little struggled to reach anyone in Washington, where USCIS has dealt with a backlog owing to two forces. The pandemic prevented large groups of people seeking citizenship from taking tests and oaths in one room, as had been the norm. More damaging, in Little’s view, is how the Trump administration had changed USCIS.

“The bottom line is, they decimated the infrastructure of USCIS the last four years,” said Little, who said he ran into similar head winds recently for other clients eligible for citizenship. “Before, this would have been really pretty easy to do. But over the last four, five years, they’ve just gutted USCIS.”

Many USCIS employees Little had come to know had left or retired.

“So this physical file of her fingerprints had just gone into the ether,” Little said.

Little called everyone he could think of. In April, he enlisted Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who helped facilitate the processing of Kelati’s biometrics at the Albuquerque USCIS office.

“Weini is a valued member of the New Mexico community and an inspiration for our young people,” Luján said in an email. “I’m proud that my office played a small part in helping Weini navigate the naturalization process and take part in this hard-fought milestone.”

USA Badminton CEO Linda French, an immigration lawyer, made contacts that proved crucial. It became a team effort, working to expand the web of people who might know how to find the fingerprints.

“Eventually, we connected with some people in Albuquerque that were able to track this stuff down,” Little said. “USA Badminton was most helpful. They knew how to do this. Without them, we probably wouldn’t have been able to find these people.”

Just in time, Kelati’s fingerprints made it to the right place and her approval was stamped. Little is still not certain who among himself, Luján, French and the Albuquerque USCIS office made the crucial contact or which party on the other end finally solved the glitch.

“To be honest,” Little said, “I’m not even sure how we achieved it.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Kelati went to take her citizenship test. About two hours later, she sent Little a text message. It was a photograph of her posing in front of an American flag, beaming.

Even as she traveled to Oregon, Kelati faced one more administrative hurdle. Late Thursday night, USA Track and Field accepted her entry into the meet on a provisional basis after it sent an application to World Athletics to transfer Kelati’s national allegiance from Eritrea to the United States, a necessary step because Kelati competed for Eritrea at the 2014 meet. World Athletics needed to approve the transfer by this coming Thursday for her to compete at the Olympics — and such cases can sometimes take as long as three months.

On Friday evening, Kelati received resolution. In a statement, USATF said Kelati’s transfer of allegiance had been approved “with immediate [effect].”

“Ms. Kelati will compete in the women’s 10,000m Saturday morning and is fully eligible for Team USATF,” the statement read.

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Kelati has been back to Eugene before; in 2018, she won an NCAA championship there. But this will be her most important race yet. Kelati said Gilbert, the Heritage coach, and his wife plan to be there in person.

“Since Day 1, it felt amazing to be on that track, and now I’m going back for one of the biggest races of my life,” Kelati said. “Right now, I’m at a loss for words. This 24 hours, this situation happened. But I’m ready for everything.”

Kelati came to a new country seven years ago, still a teenager, looking to start a new life. She now calls that place home. She has a family, a career and a college degree. On Saturday, she will race to wear the letters USA across her chest.

“She’s a great addition to America,” Little said. “And she’s so happy to be in the States.”

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