Meet Team USA’s blackest Olympic marathon team ever
The Olympics are postponed a year, but the marathon continues for this trio
What happens to an Olympic dream deferred?
Aliphine Tuliamuk, Sally Kipyego and Abdihakem “Abdi” Abdirahman, three of the six runners who made the U.S. Olympic marathon team at the end of February, are doing the most marathoner thing ever: putting one foot in front of the other, knowing everyone is being impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, not just them.
“I’m just pleased they didn’t cancel [the Olympics], and just postponed it,” said Kipyego, who qualified for her second Olympics — and her first representing the U.S. — by placing third in the women’s trials.
All three runners are African-born American citizens and vary in how they identify: American, African American, Kenyan or Somali American, black. But they all agree on the title: marathoner.
The last time three members of the U.S. Olympic marathon team were black was … never.
The trio, along with their marathon teammates — 2018 national cross country champion silver medalist Molly Seidel, eight-time All-American Jacob Riley and 2016 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Galen Rupp — are among roughly 6,200 athletes worldwide who have qualified for the Olympics so far.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Games have been postponed until July 2021. The basic concerns about executing the Games this summer were threefold: The virus could spread more and put the athletes’ health at risk, athletes wouldn’t be able to train and compete at the highest level and fans would likely not attend.
“You will never get the best of the athletes when the stadiums are empty and no one is watching,” said Abdirahman, who placed third in the men’s Olympic marathon trials.
The postponement is expected to cost Olympic organizers, sponsors and broadcasters billions of dollars. But athletes are affected too — financially, emotionally and physically. Training schedules will be prolonged, access to facilities and teammates will be limited, if not canceled and the date of their next competition is uncertain.
“I’m a planner, so it’s hard not to know what’s happening in the next six months,” said Kipyego. “Now I’m just looking at two months at a time.”
The first Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, in 1896, featured the marathon race for men only. The first time the U.S. marathon team included a black man was in 1952 when Ted Corbitt, who went on to help design the New York City Marathon, competed in the Helsinki Games. There wasn’t another black man on the team until 2004, when Mebrahtom “Meb” Keflezighi, who identifies as an American and cherishes his Eritrean heritage, won the silver medal in Athens.
The first women’s Olympic marathon was featured in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, but no African American woman has represented the U.S. in the Olympic marathon.
Until now, thanks to Tuliamuk and Kipyego.
Heading into the Olympic trials, Tuliamuk was seeded 10th and was considered a long shot for the Olympic team. Still, her goal was to make it to Tokyo. When she crossed the finish line ahead of all of her female competitors and many of the men, she surprised the running world, including herself.
“I’ve never performed well on days that mattered most,” Tuliamuk said. “I’m used to being an underdog and used to being happy with second place.”
It’s hard to view Tuliamuk as an underdog when she is a nine-time U.S. champion, earned nine NCAA All-American honors and was the 2017 U.S. 10K cross country national champion. But a stress fracture and ankle injuries prevented her from training in 2018 and 2019. During that time, she made ends meet by selling crocheted items on Etsy and working as an Uber driver.
Tuliamuk, 31, celebrated her victory in the 2020 Olympic trials with her teammates from the HOKA One One Northern Arizona Elite running group and a shot of whiskey. She’d planned to take a few days off afterward to recover and vacation in Kenya or Central America with her partner. But health concerns and travel restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus kept them in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She splits her time between there and Flagstaff, Arizona, where she trains.
To add to Tuliamuk’s concerns, her partner is a physician assistant who may have come into contact with a client with COVID-19. Additionally, Tuliamuk said, her father has health conditions that put him at risk for the disease. She’s worried he won’t survive if infected.
“I’m getting hit from all angles,” Tuliamuk said while getting emotional during a phone interview. “Things are happening and I have no control.”
Tuliamuk had hoped the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would still find a way to host the Olympics safely this summer. When she learned the Olympic Games had been pushed back a year, it took time for her to process it.
“I wanted the race to happen as long as it was safe,” she said. “When I knew the Olympics wouldn’t happen, I got a lump in my throat and a migraine.”
Not only was the biggest race of her life delayed, her plans to start a family were also put on pause. She and her partner wanted to start having children once the Olympics were over.
“My mom keeps telling me I’m getting old,” Tuliamuk said with a laugh. She is one of 32 kids on her dad’s side, and one of eight on her mom’s side.
Tuliamuk and Kipyego were both born and raised in Kenya and come from Rift Valley region, where some of the fastest distance runners in the world have been born. Kipyego came to the U.S. in 2005 and ran for South Plains College, then transferred to Texas Tech in 2006; Tuliamuk came to the U.S. in 2009 and first ran for Iowa State, then transferred to Wichita State. Both women became cross country champions before moving on to conquer the marathon. They also became U.S. citizens within a year of each other — Tuliamuk in 2016 and Kipyego in 2017.
“Representing the U.S. is a privilege and an honor,” Kipyego said. “America has been good to my family. It’s opened doors and opportunities. I chose America.”
Kipyego, who represented Kenya in the 2012 Olympics, currently lives with her husband, elite runner Kevin Chelimo, and their 2-year-old daughter, Emma, in the small town of Chepkanga, Kenya.
“It’s easier to train here [in Kenya] and we have more family support. And it’s easy to social distance here. There are not many people to run into,” Kipyego said, chuckling.
Normally, Kipyego would spend time training with teammates in Eugene, Oregon, where she’s a member of the Oregon Track Club Elite. But with international travel to and from Kenya currently banned, she runs by herself.
Despite winning three Big 12 cross country titles, and silver medals from the 2011 World Athletics Championships and 2012 London Olympics in the 10,000 meters, Kipyego struggled to finish races after Emma’s birth in 2017. The 34-year-old has been vocal about the difficulty of balancing motherhood with her career — which makes her place on Team USA even sweeter.
“My husband gave up his running career to help with my training and caring for Emma,” she said. “He helped me get back to my old self.”
When Kipyego learned the Games were being postponed, she was relieved.
“There was a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of health risk,” she said. “I know a lot of athletes and some who have qualified [for the Olympics] and they all agree with the decision.”
Of the three runners, Abdirahman has been a U.S. citizen the longest, since 2000. Abdirahman, who was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, moved to Tucson, Arizona, when he was 7. His family had escaped the Somali Civil War.
After missing the 2016 trials because of injury, Abdirahman is eager to get to Tokyo for his fifth Olympic appearance. But he agrees with the decision to postpone the Summer Games.
“They made a good decision,” he said. “We want to come together as human beings. All the athletes will train harder than ever. There will be records broken. To be disappointed would be selfish.”
When Abdirahman gets to the starting line next summer, he’ll be 44 years old, which will make him the oldest American athlete to run the 26.2-mile race in the Olympics. Until then, he’s training in Tucson with his coach, Dave Murray, and with Mo Farah’s Mudane Team (Mudane means excellency in Somali), which includes Belgian distance runner Bashir Abdi and coach Gary Lough, a British, former middle distance runner who is the husband of former marathon world-record holder Paula Radcliffe.
“I keep it simple,” Abdirahman said. “I run five to six days a week. I don’t eat fast food. I never count calories. I eat when I’m hungry and drink when I’m thirsty.”
Abdirahman, who said he sometimes listens to Nipsey Hussle and Nas during short runs, has made peace with the current circumstances.
“The best thing to do was postpone and be safe with family and loved ones,” said Abdirahman. “We can train full time when things get back to normal. When everyone can enjoy the sport. …
“The Olympics will bring the world back together. We don’t want to do sports when the rest of the world is struggling.”
Though Abdirahman, Kipyego and Tuliamuk don’t train together, they are training in the same way — running alone because of global and domestic social distancing mandates and doing gym work that will keep them in enough shape for race training. (Tuliamuk said her love for baking pecan pies is a challenge.)
The three marathoners hope they can start racing again in September to prepare for the Olympics.
With the Olympic race more than a year away, however, some fans and runners have argued that the trials should be rerun. But top runners, including Desiree Linden and Laura Thweatt — who finished fourth and fifth, respectively, in this year’s marathon trials — were quick to shut down that talk.
Anybody suggesting the Marathon Trials be re-run, just stop. There are 6 athletes who actually have so much to celebrate during this tough time, please don’t crap on their parade. #2cents
— des_linden (@des_linden) March 24, 2020
A few more thoughts on all of this: We marathoners were fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to chase our Olympic dreams this year while so so many other athletes were not. The results should NOT change just because the games date did. https://t.co/uKFTdQpdEm
— Laura Thweatt (@thweatt11) March 26, 2020
Both Kipyego and Tuliamuk added that a redo wouldn’t make sense logistically.
“I can understand it from the competitor’s point of view, because one year is a really long time,” Kipyego said. “I get it. But at the same time, how do you tell someone who has made the Olympic team that they’re not going to the Olympics?”
Tuliamuk attributed calls for a redo to people who just weren’t satisfied with the results, and appreciated that Linden and Thweatt rejected the idea.
“I can visualize going to Tokyo and representing really well,” Tuliamuk said. “I want people to know they sent the right team to Tokyo.”
A few days after the Olympic postponement was announced, the IOC confirmed that all athletes who have qualified for the Games so far have secured their spots in the 2021 Games. This means that barring injury, Abdirahman, Kipyego, Tuliamuk and their teammates will compete in Tokyo.
To win a medal, all three will have to cut several minutes from their overall race times, as they will be competing against some of the fastest runners in the world. This includes, most notably, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei. Both runners are current world marathon world-record holders, and Kipchoge broke the two-hour barrier last fall.
Kipyego said despite the many challenges surrounding these Olympic Games, she will have the same goal.
“I am a competitor and I intend to bring my A-game anyway,” Kipyego said. “I will still have the same dreams and the same passion to go to Tokyo and medal.
“A year just gives me a little more time.”