2014 Boston Marathon winner finally receives prize money, from a stranger: ‘We cried’

Ten years and one month after Buzunesh Deba finished as the rightful winner of the 2014 Boston Marathon, she was finally given the prize money she never received — but it didn’t come from the Boston Athletic Association.

Rather, it came from a stranger.

When Deba crossed the finish line on Boylston Street in 2014, she didn’t receive international praise, the ceremonial gold wreath or the purse of $100,000 ($75,000 for winning plus $25,000 for breaking the course record). Rather, those honors and winnings went to Rita Jeptoo, who crossed the finish line first that year, but whose victory was stripped by the BAA in 2016 after a failed drug test.

Deba finished just over one minute behind Jeptoo for second place that day, but her time of 2:19:59 still shattered the previous course record set by Margaret Okayo in 2002.

But while Deba’s name replaced Jeptoo’s in the history books after the failed test, the money never appeared in Deba’s bank account.

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Despite Jeptoo’s record being scrubbed and her name being tarnished, her winnings have never been reclaimed. Similar cases have unfolded with the Chicago Marathon, where Liliya Shobukhova won the race three times for a total of $265,000 before she was caught doping. Like with Jeptoo, no money has ever been recovered from Shobukhova.

That is until Doug Guyer gave her the money out of his own pocket. Guyer, a businessman from Philadelphia, personally paid Deba her $75,000 after reading an article in The Wall Street Journal in April about her never receiving her winnings.

“We cried. I called my mother to tell her and she was so happy,” Deba told The Athletic in an email.

Deba, who has competed internationally for Ethiopia, is based in the Bronx, N.Y., with her husband and two children.

She found success at the 2014 New York City Marathon, where she finished ninth, and returned to Boston in 2015, where she finished third.

But for Deba, that 2014 win remains the pinnacle of her career. And for her family, those winnings were sorely needed.

“It means so much. It allows me to train again. We don’t have a sponsor. We have to pay for everything,” she said. “And I have two children. The money will go to my training and my family. We are so grateful. We have waited so long for this and almost gave up. God bless Mr. Doug.”

Guyer, who played football at Boston College and was beaten out for the starting quarterback spot by Doug Flutie in 1981, told the Boston Globe, “It was just about righting a wrong that’s been wrong for 10 years.”

Guyer said he’ll consider sending the $25,000 course record bonus if the BAA doesn’t.

The BAA said in a statement it is in “pursuit of reclaiming prize money awards from Rita Jeptoo” and plans to pay Deba her winnings when the association receives them. The organization said it is backed by policies held by World Athletics and supported by World Marathon Majors.

“The BAA is still pursuing Ms. Jeptoo to recover the prize money for Ms. Deba, which the BAA believes would be a just and fair result for her and all runners who follow the rules,” a BAA spokesperson said.

Deba said she was skeptical of Jeptoo’s performance from the day of the 2014 race, saying she wondered why Jeptoo wasn’t tired when she crossed the finish line.

Deba looks over her shoulder on the home stretch of Boylston Street during the 2014 Boston Marathon. (Photo: Dina Rudick / Getty Images)

But when Deba was told in 2016 that she was the winner, she couldn’t believe it.

“I was in my apartment and I jumped up and down. It was my biggest win,” she said. “Not only was I the champion but I was also the course record holder.”

Despite her decade of waiting for her proper winnings, Deba said she’s never held bitterness against the BAA. Instead, she considers the organization “like family.”

While she took her story public in April, in the weeks before the 10-year anniversary of her win, she held back from sharing it so for many years because she trusted the BAA would do right by her. She also feared that if she said something she would not be invited back to the prestigious race.

“This started when my friend came to my apartment and looked at my second-place trophy and asked, ‘What’s this? Where’s your real trophy?’ I told her that they never sent one to me,” Deba said. “She was so upset for me. We wrote to them and I eventually got my medals. Then they asked me to come to a celebration for the 10 year winners. She told me that I should see what they planned to do about the money.”

In response to The Wall Street Journal story, fans from around the world came to Deba’s defense, with many even willing to crowdfund her winnings.

“I am so grateful to know that so many people are behind me,” Deba said. “It is important that people know how hard I worked to win. This is my job. I was not begging for something that wasn’t mine. A lot went into winning and I am glad to see that the community agrees with me.”

It wasn’t until after the April article was published that the BAA responded about trying to move her case forward, Deba said.

And yet, that doesn’t diminish her adoration for the race or even deter her from wanting to return to the world’s most famous marathon.

“It is still my dream to come back and not only run but win Boston,” she said.

Required reading

(Photo: John Blanding / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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