Olympic gold medalist Jeneba Tarmoh speaks out against 'ignorance' over Ebola

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Jenebah Tarmoh
Jeneba Tarmoh on Instagram
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  • Jeneba Tarmoh
    Jeneba Tarmoh
    American sprinter

The headlines and photos are enough to scare anyone.

"The number of people infected with Ebola in western Sierra Leone is increasing to more than 20 deaths daily," one newspaper reported on Tuesday. "Forty-nine new cases were confirmed on Monday."

Here in America, the fear has spread from the disease itself to the nations plagued by the disease. A Texas college rejected two student applicants because they were from Nigeria even though that nation has successfully contained the disease. For people who have roots in affected African countries, it's beyond hurtful. It's personal.

Olympic gold medalist Jeneba Tarmoh is one of those people.

Tarmoh became famous in 2012 when she tied Allyson Felix in the 100 meters at U.S. Olympic qualifying but opted not to compete in the runoff. She is known for that split-second and that decision, but her own identity is so tied to the nation of Sierra Leone that she has thought of running for that country in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

This week, after reading about all the heartbreak in her parents' homeland and all the fear in her own country, she dressed up in traditional clothing and posed for an Instagram photo.

"I'm Sierra Leonean," she wrote. "Not a virus."

"We should educate ourselves on this disease and pray for the people who have lost their lives," Tarmoh wrote, "instead of [making] meme jokes about it. There's so much ignorance with this whole #ebola situation and people are showing their true colors, its [sic] a disgrace."

Tarmoh, who was born in San Jose, Calif., lives and trains in California, but her parents were both educated as nurses in Sierra Leone. Her roots are in the Mende tribe and she still speaks a blend of Mende dialect, Creole, and English to her family.

"I grew up on rice and soups," she said by phone Tuesday. "I knew nothing but our African tradition."

Tarmoh planned to visit Sierra Leone last December but she put off the trip because of the outbreak. Her fear is that the compassionate nature of the Sierra Leonean people has put them more at risk for the disease.

"If you're sick, they will feed you with a spoon," Tarmoh said. "They will cry with you and wipe away your tears. If you die, they will wash your body. They will cover your body. My fear is that passion has become their downfall."

Tarmoh understands the movement to block travel to and from affected parts of Africa, but she feels there's too little understanding and empathy.

"It's like we're not even praying for them," she said. "We're just blocking them. It's all because of ignorance."

Tarmoh, 25, says she does not know anyone who has been afflicted with Ebola, but "90 percent" of her family still lives there, causing her to worry on a daily basis. She wants to raise money for children in Sierra Leone whether they are healthy or sick.

And she says there is even a chance she will run under the Sierra Leone flag if she makes the Olympics in Rio. She was part of the United States' Olympic champion 400 relay team in London, but the pull of her parents' heritage has always been strong. She spent nearly a year in Sierra Leone when she was younger, even during the height of a civil war. And every Christmas, her mother Grace makes an extra helping of food and puts it to the side so that the spirits of deceased relatives can dine with the living family.

It's the connection through generations that has her thinking about representing Sierra Leone in two years.

"I'm definitely considering it," Tarmoh said.

For now, the Texas A&M grad is grateful for her life in the U.S. and worrying for those in Sierra Leone. She hopes awareness can spread as far and as fast as fear has.

"There's too much fear," she said. "And a lot of this fear just brings more destruction."