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World champion Marco Arop talks 800m gold and South Sudanese pride

Arop rallies from last to win 800m at Worlds
Canada's Marco Arop goes from the back of the field to the top of the podium, rallying at the bell to win the men's 800m at the World Athletic Championships.

Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.

Marco Arop earned Canada’s first 800m world title at the 2023 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary this summer. Arop, who was an All-American at Mississippi State University, moved to Canada at three years old with his family in search of a better life after fleeing a civil war in Sudan.

The 25-year-old opens up about the sacrifices his parents made for him and his five brothers, the support he receives from the South Sudanese community all over the world, his world championship victory, how his strategy for the 800m has evolved, and what the city of Starkville, Mississippi means to him below.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Marco, what brought you to Mississippi State and what does that community mean to you?

Marco Arop: Track and field. I originally wasn’t planning on going to the States at all for school but I started training in 2016, and then in 2017 I got an offer from Mississippi State. I saw that there was a another Canadian 800m runner named Brandon McBride who competed there and the coach seemed like he did a really good job.

When I came here in 2018, I didn’t really know what to expect, and every year has just been better than the last since then. Starkville, Mississippi has really grown on me and I’m glad to be here.

How would you describe Starkville, Mississippi for the people who’ve never been there?

Arop: Starkville is a college town. Everything revolves around Mississippi State University and the community. From what I’ve seen, they’ve been really kind and polite. It’s something I had to get used to. It was my first time being in Mississippi let alone the U.S. and it’s been incredible.

It’s exactly where I need to be just knowing that I have access to everything I need and for my personality, having a small town—everything is working out so well for me here.

You had a college scholarship to play basketball that you actually turned down. Can you tell me more about that and whether or not you experienced a moment of doubt about if that was the right decision for you?

Arop: Yeah, during the summer of 2016 I was doing both basketball and track and I really had to make a decision. I think I had to commit to one because everyone was telling me I couldn’t do both and that seemed like the case, especially at a high level.

Once I committed to track and field, I didn’t look back. That was the best decision I could have made for myself and as much as I love basketball, I think my abilities in track and field were almost too good to pass up on. I wanted to take full advantage and basically just transferred my passion for basketball over to track and field.

You still train with Mississippi State coach Chris Woods. What’s your relationship like with him?

Arop: He’s really awesome. He was actually the one who recruited me way back in 2017, although I didn’t train with him for the first couple of years but eventually we started working together. I think that what we have going on has just been incredible. He’s a world class coach—probably the best 800 meter coach in the NCAA and it’s shown not just with me, but some of the talent that we have on the team.

There are guys who came in running way slower times than I was and now they’re at the world class level. The results have been showing and I plan to stick around with him for as long as I can.

Marco Arop Chris Woods.JPG


It really feels like the 800 is a calling. It’s so uniquely challenging amongst track and field events. Why did you pick this event?

Arop: I love the 800m because it’s the perfect blend of speed and endurance...some days I feel like a sprinter, some days I feel like a distance runner. A lot of people say it’s the hardest race, but I think the training is is the hard part. Once you do the training for the 800, it just becomes easy once you’re on the track doing two laps. It’s my perfect race. It’s so fast, but there’s also tactics involved.

Switching gears, I want to talk about your family. I know you have five brothers. What was it like growing up in your household?

Arop: It was pretty competitive. All of us are within two to five years apart so everything would be a competition. Growing up, it was very stressful for my parents but at this point we are probably the closest people you’d ever see and and I love every single one of them all the same. As hectic as it was growing up, it’s made me who I am and I wouldn’t be the same person without them.

Marco Arop childhood.JPG


Can you talk about your parents’ journey from South Sudan? What do you remember from your time there?

Arop: I was very young so I don’t remember much at all but I do know from the stories that they’ve told us that they made sacrifices for us—leaving behind their family and their livelihood in search of a better future for us. All of my brothers and I want to honor that by being the best we can at what we do, and taking advantage of every opportunity given to us because my parents didn’t have the same.

By the time they got to Edmonton (where they still live), they had four boys and just had to work and take care of us. They made sure there was always food on the table and I think that’s been most of their lives. I really appreciate them for the decisions they’ve made in their lives and they’re still around, so it’s always good to go back home and and see them. As long as it’s been, they’re always going to be connected to their home [country] and that’s one thing I’m happy about.

When you talk about those sacrifices, what kind of sacrifices did you witness firsthand? I myself am a child of immigrants as well, but can you explain for the people that don’t know what that’s like?

Arop: One thing I never understood growing up, we would always just assume that everything was better living in a developed country. I would see my parents stressing and sometimes wishing that they had just stayed at home and it never made sense to me [because the standard of life here was better]. I always wondered why that was the case. I think it’s just two completely different worlds.

We have way more access to literally everything in Canada compared to in Sudan but my parents [used to] question if they’d made the right decision because they had not been home for over almost 20 years at that point. They [had to deal with] not seeing family members, losing loved ones and hearing about it over the phone, and not being there to support them.

When you’re living in in a developed country and you’ve got family members back home, there’s always that expectation that you’ll be helping out [financially] so they’ve been struggling with that for quite a while, and it feels like they never have enough to give back. Those are some of the things that they’ve been living with, it’s gotten better over the years.

Thank you for sharing that. After listening to all that you just explained, do you ever reflect on the fact that life could have been very different for you and your family if you didn’t leave Sudan?

Arop: Absolutely! I can’t imagine where I would be or what life would have looked like. It’s a completely different reality that no matter how many times I think about it, I don’t think I could even get close to grasping the idea of it.

Everything I am is because because of the choices my parents have made. Where we grew up, the neighborhoods we grew up in, the schools we went to, the friends that I’ve made along the way, all the teachers I’ve learned from, the coaches that I’ve had—all of that was because of my parents’ decisions.

You’re describing your parents, your friends, your teachers—that’s your community. Can you talk about the support that you’ve received from all of the different communities that you’re part of, the South Sudanese community, the Canadian Community, Mississippi State, and your family especially?

Arop: That’s one thing I love about sports in general and really just having any sort of success. Everybody along the way has played a hand in where I am now even if they don’t realize it. The small contributions that have been made from friends, teachers, and coaches growing up—the small little lessons along the way that I still take to this day, it could be the most random things. I learned a lot of lessons from my high school basketball coach and even to this day, I think some of those things have been helping me on the track. I had teachers and friends who were always motivating me. They might not realize what sort of impact it’s had on on my confidence and and my self-esteem.

I thank everyone that sends messages and reaches out to me because in a sense it’s also a reminder that I could be doing this for myself, but there’s a greater community behind me that has helped me get here. To hear them say that they’re proud or that my performance has inspired them brings everything full circle and makes me realize that this is more than just myself. It’s a special feeling.

We’ve got a really big South Sudanese community in Edmonton and the support from them is incredible. Every time I go home, I see my relatives, friends, and family and they always come and express how proud they are. Sudanese people around the world—people I’ve never met—have come up to me during my travels to tell me that they’ve watched me compete and that it inspires them. I think that’s what it’s all about in the end. Seeing how far my success has reached and the people that it’s influenced and and inspired.

It really just motivates me to work even harder and just keep doing my best for not just myself but for them. Every success that I have, I want share it with Canadians and Sudanese alike.

On the women’s side of the 800m, Athing Mu has been super dominant and also has Sudanese roots. Do you have a friendship with her and what are your thoughts of that shared success within the Sudanese community?

Arop: Every time I run into her I feel like I’m looking at a sister. Seeing the success that she’s had has made me so proud of her and all the hard work that she does to get there. It really inspires me to be the best that I can be. I know there’s a lot of people looking up to both of us and it’s so incredible the things that she’s done at at her age. I know her brother pretty well. So it’s really cool. She’s like an extended family member that I don’t really see often but I get to watch at competitions.

I’m really proud of what she’s done and grateful that she’s there and somebody I can see. If I was the best version of myself on the track it would look a lot similar to her.

I love that! You’ve had your own world title moment as well. After breaking through for the bronze medal at the 2022 World Championships you made it to the top of the podium in 2023, winning your first global title, which was also the first for Canada in the 800m, men’s or women’s. What was that moment like?

Arop: It was incredible. I think last year just getting a taste of the podium and knowing what it felt like to be up there on a global stage, it was one of the best things I had ever done. However, I knew that there was just another step—maybe two steps, I do like an upgrade—and that was the goal all year.

I think had I not been on the podium, it would have been disappointing so just coming up with the gold medal was way above and beyond. It’s what we all train for and to actually achieve that, I know, it wasn’t the perfect season, but we got the most important race and series of races done according to plan. I was just really happy about it.

You said that there was a point during the race where you were like, “alright, I know I’ve got this. I know I’m going to win.” Can you take me back to that moment? When was it and what was going through your head?

Arop: Yeah, that last 100 meters, I think I had a pretty good idea once I made my final move. I created a gap on the pack and going down the home stretch, I could see this large screen at the top. I kept looking up and thinking “Okay, it’s gonna be really hard for any of those guys to catch me.” Then it just started dawning on me that I might win this race.

You can go through so many thoughts in such a short moment. As I’m running, I’m thinking “Okay, I’m going to be the world champion. This is really cool. What’s that going to look like in the future?”

As soon as I crossed the finish line I was just amazed. Even though I’ve thought about this so many times, it just didn’t even feel real. It felt like I had done something by accident to be honest. I just couldn’t believe it. As soon as I finished that, I was already thinking about the next race.

Day 8 - World Athletics Championships Budapest 2023

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - AUGUST 26: Marco Arop of Canada won the men’s 800m final during day eight of the World Athletics Championships Budapest 2023 at National Athletics Centre on August 26, 2023 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Mattia Ozbot/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Day 8 - World Athletics Championships Budapest 2023

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - AUGUST 26: Marco Arop of Canada won the men’s 800m final during day eight of the World Athletics Championships Budapest 2023 at National Athletics Centre on August 26, 2023 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Mattia Ozbot/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Day 9 - World Athletics Championships Budapest 2023

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - AUGUST 27: Gold medalist Marco Arop of Team Canada celebrates with their gold medal on the podium after the Men’s 800m Final during day nine of the World Athletics Championships Budapest 2023 at National Athletics Centre on August 27, 2023 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Getty Images

I read that once you were doing your victory lap, you looked up and you saw your coach and you got emotional. Tell me about that moment.

Arop: That was really special moment. Chris was thinking about not going to the stadium because he could be a little superstitious at times and he didn’t watch the first two rounds in the stadium. I think he was in the warm up area, so going into the race I’d asked him if he could just come to the stadium for this race because I thought something good was going to happen and wanted him to be there.

When I came around and that was the first time I saw him after leaving the warm up area, I was just really happy that he got to witness it and watch his own accomplishment too, because he was a big part of that championship. It just meant so much more that he got to be in the stadium and I got to celebrate it with him.

Who was your first call after the win in Budapest? Your family?

Arop: Yeah, I talked to my brothers and my parents afterwards. It was pretty late in Budapest, but it was late afternoon for them, so we just chatted all night long. It was funny because I had been talking to my brothers throughout that entire week and basically asking them, “Should I do this strategy? Should I go out front or sit in the back?”

Of course they don’t really know too much about race tactics and stuff like that but they’ve been helping me along the way so for them to see me win it was really special for them as well. After the congratulations it just went back to being a regular conversation with the brothers.

How has your running strategy evolved over the years and how did things come together for the biggest victory of your career?

Arop: When I started training competitively, I didn’t really have many training partners that were competing in the 800. I would start the first part of [my workouts] with 400 meters sprinters and then the last half of my workout I would do on my own. I got really comfortable leading races and taking it out from the front. I thought if I was able to run my best times on my own then staying clear of the pack, and just taking it out would not cause me any trouble. Then I realized that, that’s really hard to do at high level competitions.

Coach had started working on different tactics and that meant I had to be more fit in terms of 400m speed and 1500m strength so I can race in all different ways. 2021 was when we started working on negative splitting and sitting and kicking. We tried it out in a few low-key races and had some success there, but I didn’t have the confidence at the time to to use it at the Olympics or [2022] World Championships.

Even in Eugene last year, I was a little more fluid with the race strategy in terms of not just going straight to the front. I was running extra distance to avoid the pack and I think I realized at the time of the final that although I’m in the best shape of my life and I feel like I have a really good chance of winning from the front, there was just this feeling that if I had taken it out, somebody was going to catch me in the last 50 meters.

What looks different in training to build your ability to use that race strategy?

Arop: We do all kinds of pace changes. Some days I feel like a distance runner going as far as 12 miles on a long run and the other days I might just be doing very short sprints, 120s, maybe blocks starts if we’re doing 400m. Being prepared for any pace and being able to run relaxed is one thing that helps a lot. Staying composed no matter what pace we’re running at develops in training.

You talked about being in the best shape of your life this season but confidence is such a mental thing. What changed for you so that you were able to make this switch to be more confident to implement that strategy?

Arop: Definitely the experience. Having competed at multiple world finals, I knew what to expect at this point. Last year, winning the world bronze medal gave me a lot of confidence going into the season. I knew in early March that I was already in 1.53 shape, so as long as I just stayed healthy, which we kind of struggled to do for a couple of months, as long as I was able to just get back into racing fitness, I didn’t have to do more than I was capable of.

That was the mindset [going into world championships]. Just do what I’m capable of and hope that that’s enough, because you can’t really ask for much more. It was about not allowing my mentality to get in the way of of my physical capabilities.

You said after your win in Budapest that you stayed up late prepping for your race strategy. What did that preparation look like?

Arop: A lot of visualization. As soon as the start list came out I just couldn’t stop thinking about the different ways the races could play out. It was maybe over over-doing it a bit, but I think it all worked out in the end. I was up pretty late some nights, especially after races, because I like to take caffeine before I compete and that keeps me up late into the night.

I spent that time visualizing and seeing success for myself and trying to think of the ways that the race could play out and how other athletes could race. It just prepares me mentally, so I’m not surprised when the race plays out. I can see things that I’ve already thought about and I can almost respond to it and not just be reactive to it.

What’s one scenario that came through your mind that you tried to prep for?
Arop: The first one will always just be front-running. Going out to the front and leading the race, what my splits would look like ideally, where I want to distribute my energy the most, at what point in the race will I be relaxing, and how do I want to finish through line. That would be the easiest scenario.

If I can get to the first 200m comfortably, the last 600m takes care of itself and then of course if somebody else wants to take it out, that sort of changes things.

I always have to be prepared for any sort of race situation. It’s one thing to have a plan, but as soon as that gun goes off, we see things happening so quickly that it would be a problem if we just stuck to the plan no matter what. Going back to the Tokyo Olympics, I learned that just because I have a plan, doesn’t mean I have to stick to it.

But I think that’s something every athlete should do. Try to see the race play out before it happens.

Thank you for sharing that! Switching gears, Paris, 2024 is next year. What would it mean for you to be there at your second Olympic Games?

Arop: It would be incredible! We put these things on our calendars and they seem so far away until you get there. I’ve been thinking about Paris for as long as I’ve been running. I learned a lot of lessons after my first Olympic experience in Tokyo and I’m just excited to accomplish things that I’ve never done before—making the final and and hopefully winning an Olympic medal. That excites me so much and will keep me motivated for training leading up to the Games.

Marco Arop Olympics.JPG


How do you think that Paris 2024 will be different for you, experiencing your second Olympics?

Arop: Going into [Tokyo], I still had a lot to learn in terms of confidence. I don’t think I had the confidence in my capabilities even though they were there at the time. I had ran my previous personal best that year, so I knew I was in really great shape and I felt like had things worked out in the semifinal, I would have been in a great position in the final.

Going into this next season, the Paris Olympics are going to be really exciting because not only am I more confident, I think I’m going to be in much better shape than I was this year. I’m just hoping that I can stay healthy and get there. I’m excited to have another Olympic experience and to actually have fans in the stadium and possibly my family being there is one thing I look forward to most.

What will this next year look for you in the lead up in terms of preparation?

Arop: This next season is going to look very much similar to to last year. I’ll be back in Starkville for most of the year and training with my training partners and coach. We try not to change things up too much. The small little increments in progression are so much more valuable than making big leaps. I think we’ll be doing a lot of heavy base training and volume earlier in the year and then maybe doing a little bit more speed work, 400m pace stuff, and possibly getting a few races. I would like to at some point have a 4x400 for Canada, so I think we’re we’re planning on doing world relays at some point next year.