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During a celebratory send-off for local runners competing at the Olympic Marathon Trials in her adopted hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona, Aliphine Tuliamuk got a little choked up, explaining what it would mean to her to place in the top three and make her first U.S. Olympic team.
She paused for a second and wiped away a couple of tears before mentioning that she had become a U.S. citizen in 2016, after moving from Kenya in 2009—first to attend Iowa State University, then ultimately transferring to Wichita State to pursue a degree in public health.
“I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I had stayed in Kenya,” she said. “I really want to make that team because I feel like it’s my way of saying ‘thank you’ to this beautiful nation that has given me so many opportunities to support myself and support my family…if I was to make that team, it would make me very happy.”
Not only did Tuliamuk, 30, make the team, she won the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on Saturday in Atlanta, her 10th national title. Alongside her on the most-coveted podium this year was Molly Seidel, a 25-year-old Boston-based runner who had never run a marathon before, and Sally Kipyego, another Kenyan-born athlete who won a silver medal in the 10,000 meters at the 2012 Games representing her native country, but who gained U.S. citizenship in 2017.
Amid the frenzy and emotion of such a highly charged competition, it is often easy to overlook what a spot on Team USA represents. For women like Tuliamuk and Kipyego, it’s more than a quest for medals. It’s the realization of their American dream.
Kipyego, 34, also came to the United States to access higher education, landing at South Plains Junior College in Lubbock, Texas, before she was recruited by Texas Tech in 2005. She became one of the most-decorated NCAA athletes in history while earning a nursing degree, which one day she still may use, she says. Kipyego earned citizenship in 2017, the same year she gave birth to her daughter, Emma, becoming a parent alongside her husband, Kevin Chelimo.
“I always knew I wanted to be American and that had nothing to do with running—regardless of whether I was going to be an athlete or was going to run somewhere, I was always going to be an American,” Kipyego said during the post-race press conference on Saturday. “It’s a privilege, it’s an honor. I am grateful to this great nation.”
Tuliamuk grew up in a small village called Kongelai as one of 32 siblings by the same father, while Kipyego is one of seven children her mother raised by herself living in a hut in Marakwet.
Tuliamuk ran everywhere by the age of six—to school, to help fetch water for the house, and all destinations in between. She qualified for a 10,000-meter race at age 12, but she didn’t have a pair of running shoes, so she figured she couldn’t compete. Then Tegla Loroupe—the legendary marathoner who was the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon—showed up to her school one day to talk about women in sports, and as fate would have it, she also distributed running shoes while she was there. Little did she know, she was giving a future Olympian a chance.
Similarly, Kipyego grew up without much money and was without any shoes at all until about fourth grade. She ran to and from school from an early age, sometimes logging 15 miles a day just to get from point A to point B. By age 14, she won her first Kenyan national cross-country title and a year later represented her country at the world cross-country championships.
Kipyego, like Tuliamuk, knew that running would be a means to an education and a degree from a university would enable her to help lift her family to a better quality of life. Tuliamuk and Kipyego each help kids back home—Kipyego pays school tuition, for example, while Tuliamuk sends gear to inspire more girls to run, like Loroupe once did for her.
“It’s not only going to school and getting an education—getting a degree—and being a good athlete,” Kipyego said. “What scholarship did for me was allowed me to grow as an athlete, to be an Olympian and to be a professional athlete. There was a lot of ripple effects that came from that. My family is being supported because of that.”
The tears flowed again at the finish line after Tuliamuk broke the tape, not just for the victory or the prestigious title—Olympian—but for the country she’ll now represent for all the world to see. Even in a political climate as divisive as the one we’re living in right now, she and Kipyego still refreshingly believe that there’s no other flag they’d want draped around their shoulders or hoisted in their honor than the red, white, and blue.
The country and the sport is undoubtedly better for it—they’re the embodiment of what the United States is supposed to be all about, a place where everybody can work hard toward the loftiest of goals and find a way to achieve them.
“Being an American citizen to me is just an opportunity to give back to my community, to inspire people who are running,” Tuliamuk said. “When the chance came [to become a U.S. citizen], at that point I realized just how fortunate I am. Now I get to live the American dream.”