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These profiles were first published in the January/February 2020 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Front Runners: 20 Power Women of 2020,” which celebrates 20 elite female runners who are giving power new meaning, and a new image. You can see the full list of honorees here.
At 18 months old, Scout Bassett’s birth parents abandoned her on the side of the road after she had lost her right leg in a chemical fire. She spent most of the first seven years of her life in a Chinese government-run orphanage, until she was adopted by her American parents at eight years old.
Bassett has gone on to not only become one of the country’s most celebrated Paralympians, but also a champion for growing the movement. After the 100-meter and long-jump specialist posed in the ESPN Body Issue, she wanted to use the new-found notoriety to draw attention to gender disparity in Paralympic track and field. Because of the low number of female athletes, the competitive opportunities for women are fewer. Within that mission is to show younger girls that running can prove powerful in their lives.
“You can’t focus on what people are saying or how they look at you, but how you feel being able to do something with this piece of equipment,” she says. “That’s what carried me—the feeling I got while running far surpassed the bullying or how it looked. It made me feel whole.”
Stephanie Bruce, Aliphine Tuliamuk, Kellyn Taylor
Part of Northern Arizona Elite’s mission statement is to “share the journey.” That means that anybody can find out exactly how Kellyn Taylor, Stephanie Bruce, and Aliphine Tuliamuk are preparing to contend at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials—the workouts, the splits, the ups, and the downs. It’s all in plain sight.
“I think that training isn’t a big secret, but most teams are kind of hush-hush about it like they’ve got some magic formula as to what they’re doing,” Taylor says. “People like to see what you’re doing and maybe mimic some of it at their own paces. Why wouldn’t we want to help people that are our fans?”
On paper, Taylor has the clearest shot to make the Olympic marathon team, with a 2:24:27 personal best, the fifth-fastest Trials qualifier. She also finished seventh at the 2019 New York City Marathon, just seconds behind Desiree Linden. Tuliamuk arrives with a 2:26:50 best, and Bruce ran her fastest at the 2019 Chicago Marathon, in 2:27:41. And if things don’t work out on the roads of Atlanta, they also have a fair shot at making the Tokyo Games by way of the track in Eugene.
“I just tell people, ‘when we’re fit, we’re fit.’ It doesn’t matter what surface we run on,” Bruce says. “I think we just choose to put our efforts in to the roads most of the time because we really thrive there. But we know how to bring it when we run track.”
While they don’t usually get much credit for those performances on the oval, Taylor was fourth in the 10,000 meters in 2016, one place shy of making the Rio Games. In 2019, she placed third in the event at the U.S. outdoor championships, with Bruce right behind in fourth.
Wherever the trio ends up competing, they all agree on two things: their training group will send at least one member to the Olympics and they’ll all play a part in getting her there, by working together and supporting each other every day. They may be competitors on the starting line, but they’re teammates on that journey.
“Being part of this group has definitely given me confidence and prolonged my career,” Tuliamuk says. “We lift each other up every single time. It’s the best time to be part of it.”
Watching Sara Hall, 36, race is like watching a reason to never count ourselves out.
Hall, who led Stanford University to the 2003 NCAA cross-country championship, started out her pro career 15 years ago, dabbling in a wide range of events like the 3,000-meter steeplechase, the 1500 meters, sometimes the 5K. And while she was always in the mix, Hall rarely had the breakthrough performances she wanted. Even when she debuted at the marathon in 2015, she didn’t immediately take to it, bonking in Los Angeles to a 2:48:02 finish.
Despite a disappointing first try, something about the 26.2-mile distance ignited Hall’s enthusiasm and captured her imagination—the reward, she found, was in the process rather than the results.
“Through all of those failures, I got my identity more secure in who I am apart from athletic success,” Hall says. “I’m worthy of love and have value as a person and these races are icing on the cake. They don’t define me, and my self-worth isn’t on the line. As a result, every year I’m freer to take big risks.”
That liberation has pulled Hall a long way since Los Angeles, running a 2:22:16 personal best at the 2019 Berlin Marathon. It puts Hall squarely in contention to make the 2020 Olympic marathon team, currently the third-fastest qualifying time heading into the Trials.
It’d be tempting for Hall to obsess about making her first Games. And although it’d be a dream come true, she’s learned that her greater success doesn’t hang in the balance. Since she and her husband (and coach), Ryan Hall, became parents in 2015 to four girls from Ethiopia, she’s found an even greater reason to keep running, she says.
“I think all kids need to see their parents doing things that make them come alive,” she says, “and taking risks and picking yourself up after failures.”
All Shelby Houlihan has to do is be herself and the world wants to tag along on the adventure. The 26-year-old national recorder holder for 5,000 meters (14:34.35) and 1500 meters (3:54.99) travels to altitude camps and competitions with her cat, Miko, who she half-jokingly refers to as her “emotional support pet,” is unabashedly obsessed with all-things Harry Potter, and has a rowdy family fan club (the “Houlifans”) cheering her on nearly every race she enters. After the world championships, she bought herself a red 1971 VW bus and named it Ron Burgandy.
Houlihan, a member of the Bowerman Track Club, is understated and relatable in every way, until she steps onto a track—and that’s when we realize she’s of another world. Her pre-race game face is terrifying. Her turbo mode is her hallmark, blasting off in the final stretches of any distance she races to leave competitors in awe (and in her theoretical dust).
But when she leaves the track, Houlihan is instantly transformed back to the low-key human next door, even after becoming the fastest U.S. woman ever at the 1500 meters at the 2019 world championships. Just minutes afterward, she’s satisfied with her effort, but ready to dig in to see what more she can give.
“I’m just going to keep putting my head down and working hard and staying patient,” she says. “I think that’s all you can really do and trust that things will come together.”
As she ended her NCAA career and started her rookie season in professional running in 2019, Allie Ostrander made a statement about an issue many female athletes have long talked about: how race commentators often focus on women’s appearances while they’re competing on the track and roads.She made her first world championships in the steeplechase and she showed she’s not going to back away from topics that deserve attention.
“In 2018, I was called ‘the baby faced assassin’ and told that I looked like I still played with Barbies,” Ostrander, 23, wrote on Instagram. “In a sport where eating disorders and body dysmorphia are so common, the media has an opportunity to help women (and men!) feel capable, powerful, and worthy, but by focusing on appearance and body proportions, this opportunity is missed.”
That’s a cause we can get behind—and we can’t wait to see what challenges Ostrander hurdles next.
She’s an Olympic and world champion 800-meter runner. But Caster Semenya is fighting a difficult battle for the rights of athletes like herself. In 2019, the sport’s governing body enacted a policy that barred female athletes like Semenya, who have a condition that produces high levels of naturally occurring testosterone, to suppress those levels with medication or surgery in order to compete in the specified track events from the 400 meters to one mile.
Semenya, 29, of South Africa, has appealed the decision and continues a legal fight for her right to race her best event.
“As an athlete, I believe in sportsmanship and what sports teach you is to keep pushing on despite all odds,” she says. “If a wall is placed in front of me, I jump it. I’m going to keep enjoying my life and live it. I will keep on training and running. To me, impossibility is nothing.”
She’s the consistent one. Jenny Simpson, 33, has been a trailblazer for U.S. track and field since 2010, becoming a world champion in the 1500 meters in 2011, then winning silvers in 2013 and 2017. At the Rio Games, she took the bronze, becoming the first American woman to medal in the event at the Olympics.
She knows how to show up when it counts and speak her mind when it matters. Her achievements lend her the credibility to take a stand on the issues she knows are critical—like clean sport. Never shy to share an opinion in the mixed zone, she consistently advocates for anti-doping measures, most recently at the world championships in Doha, where she took eighth place, and was asked about Alberto Salazar’s four-year doping violations coaching ban.
“Get him out,” she declared. “If you cheat, you get banned. I’m a believer in lifetime bans. I wish it was longer. Don’t cheat.”
She should know—Simpson, who tries to instill her values in the next generation as an ambassador for New York Road Runners’ youth programs, has lined up against many drug cheats meets over the past 10 years. And she has found the strength to beat many of them, too.
“You stand on the starting line and you’re asked to take a lifetime of work and stack it up against other people. You can’t know what other people’s journeys were to get to that starting line,” Simpson told the Clean Sport Collective podcast.
“There’s a really beautiful Quaker quote: ‘Let your life speak.’ And that’s what I try to do…this is my chance to let my life speak.”
When Emily Sisson decided in 2019 that it was time to move up to the marathon, she didn’t hesitate to aim for the top—she flirted heavily with the American debut record.
She was close, finishing the 2019 London Marathon in 2:23:08, just eight seconds away from Jordan Hasay’s American debut of 2:23:00 at the 2017 Boston Marathon. Regardless, the result makes Sisson a threat at the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials with the fourth-fastest qualifying time on the list of contenders. Will her second 26.2-mile race be her ticket to Tokyo?
If not, Sisson has another option as one of the country’s most prolific 10,000-meter competitors. Fans have become accustomed to seeing Sisson and training partner Molly Huddle, the American record holder for 10,000 meters (30:13.17), working together around the oval and on the roads. If the marathon doesn’t go their way in February, they will take a crack at making the Olympic team at the track trials in June.
But either way, Sisson believes in reflecting on all the hard work she puts into those big days that demand big performances.
“You put yourself through a lot,” she says. “So you have to remind yourself of that when you’re on the starting line…you can realize that you’re tougher than you think you are.”
In 2019, Ajee’ Wilson became the first U.S. woman to ever win a prestigious Diamond League 800 meters. She’s the American record holder in the event (1:55.61) and is poised to bring back a medal from Tokyo, too, if all goes according to plan.
Of course, not everything turns out the way we want it to, as Wilson, 25, saw at the 2019 world championships. She came into the race the favorite, but took bronze, defeated by her training partner, Raevyn Rogers, who joined her Philadelphia–based training group after foregoing her final season of eligibility at the University of Oregon.
But what Rogers said about Wilson after that race in Doha is telling.
“Ajee’ has been very helpful in just developing me and my running skills and my confidence,” Rogers said. “She’s very selfless, very genuine at heart.”
Although disappointed with how her season ended, just minutes afterward, Wilson was already talking 2020.
“Every year is about improving. Every year is about getting better,” she says. “The Olympics is a big deal…to hopefully go for a medal is a rare opportunity I hope I get to have.”