Hicham Laalej of the men's tennis team was like most students on December 9, trying to navigate through the exams, papers and meetings which are a staple during the last weeks of the semester. The senior, a native of Morocco, was heading to class in the morning, when he received an unexpected phone call from head tennis coach Nik DeVore.
"Nik calls me and says that there is a Moroccan celebrity who has asked to see you," said Laalej. "I was like, I'm about to go to class and what would a Moroccan celebrity be doing here? He said Hicham El Guerrouj is here and he would like to meet with you."
Guerrouj, a Moroccan, is one of the most famous middle distance runners in the world, and an idol in his native country. The three-time Olympian won two gold medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and became the first man in 80 years to take gold in both the 1,500 and 5,000-meter events at the same Games. He is also the current world record holder in the 1,500, one mile and the 2,000-meter races, though he has been retired for over three years.
For Laalej, the notion that one of Moroccan's most renowned and celebrated figures was at Penn seemed beyond comprehension.
"At first I could not believe it," he said. "I didn't know what he would be doing here."
He heard correctly, as El Guerrouj was indeed on campus and had come to visit Penn. The world record holder got in contact with head women's track coach Gwen Harris on Wednesday morning about possibly taking a tour of Franklin Field. He had heard a great deal about the historic Penn Relays and Franklin Field, and wanted to see where they take place. While talking to Harris, he inquired about whether there were any Moroccans athletes on Penn's campus with whom he might be able to meet. Harris contacted DeVore, and he made the phone call to the unsuspecting senior.
Once Laalej hung up the phone, he still had to finish class. He made it through and immediately rescheduled a previous appointment with a professor and headed straight over to the Dunning Coaches Center to meet a man he classified as "the all-time ambassador of Moroccan sports." In the meantime, El Guerrouj was given a tour of Franklin Field by the track staff; he later told Laalej that Franklin Field was one of the most beautiful stadiums he has seen, and he was amazed at the architecture.
The two were able to chat for a while in the track office and talked about what it means to be a Moroccan athlete and the role both of them play as ambassadors for their country and their respective sports. El Guerrouj said he was pleased to see a Moroccan athlete not only achieve athletic success, but also earn a degree from one of the most well-known schools in the country. El Guerrouj also told Laalej he was thankful for the kindness of the track staff who welcomed him and gave him a tour.
Harris was equally ecstatic about El Guerrouj's visit, as it was an experience she'll always remember.
"It's a meeting I'll never forget," she said; "he was so nice and so kind. He thanked us for taking the time to show him around Penn and Franklin Field, when in reality we should be thanking him for taking the time to meet us [the track staff] and come to our office."
For Harris it wasn't solely meeting one of the greatest runners in the world which had her elated following his departure, but rather the manner in which an athlete of his caliber carried himself.
"He's a fabulous person and I truly enjoyed meeting him," she said. "He is an amazing person, not just athlete, and that was the most impressive part about him."
Harris also indicated that she invited him to come back for the Penn Relays in the spring, as a spectator. Though she is unsure about whether he will indeed take the staff up on its offer, it was clear that all parties came away from the situation with a positive experience. For Harris and her staff, the meeting provided the opportunity to meet a great person and a world-class athlete. In Laalej's case the experience was sublime, allowing him to meet and form a connection with a national hero, a connection which will hopefully extend into the future.
"It was unreal for me," exclaimed Laalej. "It was just such an honor to meet him, someone who forms the pride of our country. He gives me such motivation to excel."