LEWISTON — Fit and vivacious at 56, Abdullahi Abdi is a throwback to the day when youths stayed active enough to earn that status in later stages of life.
From soccer to track and field to basketball to volleyball, Abdi loved and played them all. Long after his body betrayed him and talked him out of chasing his own competitive dreams, he conveys that respect and knowledge to his own children and others young enough to be his grandchildren.
Abdi is not unlike any of the men and women in the tri-county region who sacrifice most of their spare time, accept a pittance at best in return and teach lifelong skills and habits through recreational sports.
The differences surface when Abdi starts sharing his life experience.
Once a budding athlete in Somalia, Abdi still shows off the scar tissue that covers the flesh shielding his right Achilles tendon. It represents the day the cheering and the sprinting stopped.
“I was riding a motorcycle and a car hit me,” he said. “I broke my heel. All that is gone.”
Abdi’s loss has been a world’s and a proud community’s gain.
Not long after his first foray into coaching in 1976, Abdi grew in stature with Somalia’s National Olympic Committee and with the International Association of Athletics Federations, the international governing body of track and field.
When his civil war-torn African homeland sent a small delegation of athletes to the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta, Abdi was team manager.
Though he now calls Lewiston home, Abdi still keeps Somalia and that Olympic credential close to his heart. While supervising a spirited indoor soccer practice Thursday evening at Geiger Elementary School, he pulled the plastic card and thin, metal chain from the breast pocket of his sport coat for a visitor’s benefit.
“I was leading that team. Juan Antonio Samaranch was president of the International Olympic Committee at that time,” Abdi said. “I received a certificate with his signature. I still keep it at home.”
Like many nations that compete in the Summer or Winter Games, Somalia’s sports heritage hasn’t yet translated to a spot on the medal stand.
Abdi may point out proudly that Somalia earned its best Olympic result under his tutelage. Abdi Bile placed sixth in the 1,500-meter run that summer. Bile was received with a hero’s welcome.
Somalia first sent athletes to the Munich Games in 1972, and it wasn’t out of the question that Abdi would one day march into the stadium as an athlete.
“My coach encouraged me, because my (primary) sport was soccer and he convinced me to change to track and field,” Abdi said. “I was running the 1,500 and 800. When I was in eighth grade, I was part of one of the Division I teams in Somalia for both soccer and track and field.”
After his accident, Abdi began his coaching odyssey in charge of interscholastic teams. Later he climbed the national ranks and became president of the country’s track and field program.
As war raged on, Abdi followed the path of those seeking refuge in the United States. He spent time in larger cities — Atlanta, Nashville and Columbus — before making Lewiston his home in 2006.
And his passion for the universal language of sports burns on.
Thursday night, more than two dozen athletes, most of them teenagers, chased a soft soccer ball around the Geiger gymnasium under Abdi’s supervision. Later in the evening, a steady stream of men 18 to 25 trekked through the doors for their nightly practice.
Abdi will accompany that team, the Maine Atlantic Stars, to the Spring Break indoor soccer tournament next week in Ohio. The 10th-annual showcase features a dozen teams comprised mostly of Somali immigrants.
Lewiston’s name is conspicuous next to those of Los Angeles, Washington, Toronto, Seattle, Atlanta and Minneapolis in the round-robin bracket.
“I’ve learned a lot. His experience makes a big difference. He cares about kids,” said Mohamed Mohamed, a 2005 graduate of Lewiston High School and a member of the Stars. “He gives kids direction to keep them out of trouble. It’s all about him, because he doesn’t get paid monetarily. He’s spending all this time to help kids.”
The proof is in the classroom and on the playing fields.
Mohamed is about a year away from completing his college degree. Another of Abdi’s elite players, Abdullahi Haji-Hersi, is continuing his education.
“He’s a great coach. He’s helped us a lot,” Haji-Hersi said.
Abdi’s son, Ali Hersi, is a multi-sport standout at Lewiston. The gym bustled with Ali’s teammates and neighbors Thursday evening.
Two nights a week, Abdi oversees the same activity in the Portland area.
“Most of my life, as a kid to now, at 56 years, my life has been sports,” Abdi said. “Playing, training, helping the kids as you see now. What they need is an example.”
They’ve found one. On both sides of an ocean, in an increasingly shrinking world where sports is sometimes the most crucial common denominator.