CHAMPAIGN – Bobby True hasn't lived in Liberia since he was 3. And he has no intention of returning anytime soon to a nation struggling to recover from a seven-year civil war that ended three years ago this month.
But the former Illinois track standout doesn't need to step foot in the west African nation to represent it in the 2000 Olympics. So when the first round of the 800 meters is held Sept. 23 in Sydney, Australia, True will realize his longtime Olympic dream as Liberia's one and only medal hope in the event.
"It's not that I don't want to run for one country and for the other," True said. "It's one country giving me an opportunity, and I'm capitalizing on it."
Until about a month ago, the six-time All-American had every intention of attempting to make the U.S. Olympic team. He had attained the qualifying standard in the 800 for the U.S. Olympic Trials, having run 1 minute, 47.04 seconds in April at the Drake Relays. And he carefully was plotting a training and race schedule that would lead into the mid-July Olympic qualifier in Sacramento, Calif.
Then, during a meet in Michigan, True had a chance encounter with the captain of the Liberian track and field team.
"When I met him, there was no intention of seeing how their team was doing," True said. "It was more just saying hello to one of my countrymen."
By the end of their conversation, though, Kouty Mawenh had more than goodbye on his mind. On the spot, he offered the eight-time Big Ten champion the chance to represent Liberia in the 800 at the Olympics. There'd be no trials or other qualifying. The spot was his for the taking.
"I kind of sloughed it off," said True, who has dual citizenship. "Really, I didn't think much of it because I was so focused and set on the USA Trials."
The Glendale Heights product figured that was that. Three days later, the persistent Mawenh sent an e-mail to True, reiterating his offer. This time, True decided to give it some thought.
"I just weighed my pros and cons," he said.
After seeking advice from others and deliberating on his own, True came up mostly with pros. Number one on that list was a guaranteed opportunity to be that most coveted of athletes: an Olympian.
"Less than 1 percent of the population in the history of time will be able to do it," True said.
Another positive: avoiding the grueling demands of the U.S. Trials. It will take three races to whittle down the 800 field to the three U.S. Olympic representatives.
"The Trials can really burn an athlete out," True said.
Instead, True can gear his training schedule toward peaking when the Olympics arrive. That's a luxury most U.S. Olympic track hopefuls don't have. It typically takes a peak effort to advance out of the U.S. Trials. Then, those same athletes will need to regroup physically and mentally to reach the same plateau by September.
True also weighed how he would react if his U.S. Trials' bid failed. Would it spur him on even more in his quest to make the Olympics? Or would the thought of four more years of work and sacrifices toward an uncertain outcome prove too discouraging?
"I can go through USA Trials and not make the Olympics," True said. "That might affect me negatively. That might affect me positively. I wasn't sure how I was going to react if I made it or if I didn't make it."
Then there was this long-range consideration: At 23, True probably has a better chance of making an Olympic impact during the 2004 Games. Why not grab this opportunity with Liberia to gain some valuable experience for the next Olympics?
"I figured as young as I am, I can use the experience no matter which country I'm running for," True said.
True, who lettered at the UI from 1996 to '99, is the fourth Olympian to come out of Gary Wieneke's Illini track and field program. The veteran Illinois coach was glad to see True embrace the opportunity Liberia afforded.
"I don't know how many chances you get to be in the Olympics," Wieneke said. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."
True is scheduled to take a flight next week to Europe to compete in at least three meets. Then, he'll return to Champaign to continue his training under Wieneke's guidance before leaving for Australia a few weeks before the Olympics. There is no requirement for True to be in Liberia before the Games, and he has no plans to do so.
"There's still a lot of tension," True said. "I am curious, but I really don't want to jump into something I don't know a lot about ... and maybe step into trouble.
"I'd like to go back someday when I know it's a lot more peaceful there."
Liberia was anything but peaceful when Greg and Catherine True decided to move their family to the United States 20 years ago. The first sign of serious tension occurred in April 1979, when a demonstration against the government's decision to raise the price of rice ended in clashes with troops. Forty people were killed and hundreds more wounded. Within a year, the government was overthrown in a military coup.
"My dad was thinking of being somewhere safer," True said. "We haven't been back since."
Greg True, an American, went to Liberia as a Peace Corps worker. There, he met and married Catherine, a native of Monrovia.
Bobby True has no recollection of his life in Africa but always has been intrigued by his mom's tales of their homeland.
"She still tells me stories," True said. "Things we did there. Things she did there. If we go somewhere on the (U.S.) coast, where the water's beautiful, it reminds her of her home.
"She misses it a lot. She always talks about going back, but we haven't. I've always said I'll find a way to get her back."
Meantime, Catherine True can take satisfaction in knowing her son will represent their place of birth.
"She's pretty excited for me," True said.
Though True might not remember Liberia, he has vivid recollections of his previous trip to Sydney. The summer before his sophomore year at Illinois, the 1996 U.S. Junior National champion in the 800 competed in the World Junior Championships.
"Two of the best weeks of my life," True said. "Just experiencing the culture, the competition, the feeling of being at a competition that's so big."
Now, a feeling of deja vu is within the grasp of this Olympian.
"It doesn't settle in until you get there or wear the uniform," True said. "Right now, there's a lot of relief, setting a goal for yourself and meeting it.
"I'm sure it'll be extreme jubilation."