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East African Refugee Goes From City Heights To Olympic Games

Charles Jock, right, poses next to a friend at the 2016 Olympics opening ceremony in Brazil's Maracanã Stadium, Aug. 5, 2016.

UPDATE: Jock finishes sixth in heat

With a time of 1:47.06, Charles Jock did not advance to the next round.

In a tweet following the results, Jock's alma mater UC Irvine applauded him. "Not quite enough to advance but PLENTY to make 'Eater Nation proud!" the university's athletics handle posted.

Jock's American teammates Boris Berian and Clayton Murphy did qualify and will compete in the 800 meter semi-finals Saturday.

On a recent Friday night, an Ethiopian eatery in City Heights kept its lights on past closing time to host a cheering, chanting crowd in its back room. The bar at Red Sea restaurant was open but the group of young adults was seated in front of the large TV screen. The Olympics opening ceremony was on, and Duach Jock was there watching with friends and family in hopes of spotting a familiar face: his brother.

"Let's get a glimpse," Duach said to himself, scanning the screen.

His younger sibling Charles Jock was about to enter Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro as a first-time Olympic athlete on the U.S. track team. It was a proud moment Duach didn't want to miss. He said he knew his brother was talented since they were young.

You probably know Olympic athletes Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and Usain Bolt. But on Friday, you'll want to turn your attention to Team USA’s Charles Jock. The former San Diegan and refugee will compete in the 800-meter race.

Photo credit: Richard Klein/KPBS

Mother Mary Thanypieny looks on as Duach Jock shows off a picture of his brother Charles in The San Diego Union-Tribune when he competed for Team USA at the 2011 IAAF World Championships, Aug. 5, 2016.

"He's always had it. Ever since he was a kid — he runs all the time. Wherever we go he was just running," he said in an interview. "He was a quick one, too. It was hard to catch him, we used to chase after him."

For Charles, the talent to make it to the Olympics came easy. Overcoming injury and a dangerous journey to America was harder.

The brothers were born in Ethiopia. His mother and father sought refuge there amid the civil war in their home country of what is now South Sudan. After a few years, the family began its trek to the United States and left the East African nation on foot. At the time, Charles was 3 years old. Duach was 6.

"As a kid you don't really know what's going on. You have no clue," Duach said. "They just drag your arm and you just go. You try to keep up. I remember a lot of times when night falls we have to find a camp to sleep in or even just under a tree or a shelter where you could be safe, not in danger of the animals that are around."

It took the family three weeks to reach a refugee camp in Kenya, said Charles and Duach's mother, Mary Thanypieny. They lived there for two years before being resettled in the United States and finding a home in City Heights.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Charles Jock instagram

This undated image shows a young Duach (second from left) standing with Charles (third from left), his older brother, younger sister and father, John Jock Kang, who passed away in 2005.

"And that was our neighborhood. We played a lot at Colina Park, it was right across the street. Played some basketball, soccer, rollerblading at the time," Duach added.

The family later moved and Duach enrolled at Mission Bay High School where he played soccer and ran track. Charles would follow him on the soccer team a few years later, but not track.

"It's funny because I also ran track my senior year at Mission Bay, and I'd been trying to get Charles to run track when I was running 'cause I knew he was fast," the 29-year-old said.

Charles wasn't interested in joining, his brother said, until he sat in the stands when Duach ran the last leg in a relay race.

"We were behind by about 50 meters, so it was my turn to go and I picked the baton. I ran, I ran, caught up to the guy, end up beating the guy by another 20 meters," he said. "And people started cheering, the crowd. And Charles was in the crowd by then and that was his turning moment. He came up to me afterwards, you know he felt the energy. He said, 'I think I'm ready to run.'"

Since then, Charles has quickly succeeded in the 800-meter event. He won a 2008 state championship while a senior in high school, competed in the 2011 World Championships in South Korea, won an NCAA title in 2012 and was eyeing the summer games in London.

At the 2012 Olympic trials, he came out strong and led the pack for the first half of the race. But in the final lap, a hamstring injury re-emerged and suddenly slowed him down. He finished last. His family says the loss was devastating for him.

At this year's trials in July, he made some changes, and just before the race, he called his mom.

"He told me, 'Mom, I call you because I go to run today. I missed it a lot of times. I need to make it," she recalled in an interview. "I tell him, 'You're good. Go.'"

When the gun went off at the race this time, he didn’t lead the pack. He stayed in the rear for nearly the whole half-mile race. But in the last 10 seconds, Charles burst from behind and leaped into third place to qualify for Rio.

Duach said he was in tears watching the race on TV from a bar in Toronto. A successful soccer player, Duach was in Canada for a game and popped in the nearest place to catch the Olympic trials. When he asked the bartender to switch channels so he could watch his brother, she put it on every TV in the place.

"Him reaching this milestone and actually making the Olympic team is a very proud moment — alone that does it for me," he said. "Now, the next step is going for gold or going for a medal."

An American hasn’t medaled in the 800-meter race since the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Johnny Gray took home the bronze with a time of 1:43.97. The winning time in the last Olympics was 1:40.91, a world record set by David Rudisha of Kenya. Rudisha is also competing this year. Charles’ best time is 1:44.67.

Although at the trials last month, an NBC Sports analyst's comment signaled some hope.

"This team could bring home a medal," he said.

When 26-year-old Charles takes to the track Friday in the first heat to compete for the bronze, silver or gold, his brother will be watching. But it won't be from the TV screen in a City Heights restaurant, where during last week's opening ceremony, Duach only saw the back of Charles' shirt for a few seconds.

This time, it'll be for real: Duach caught a flight to Rio earlier this week.

A photo posted on Twitter by Charles Jock shows a nighttime view of Rio de Janeiro from the Olympic Village.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the origins of Charles Jock and his family.

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