A U.S. Olympic women’s marathon team of surprises, unique stories

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ATLANTA — The U.S. Olympic Women’s Marathon Trials produced an unpredictable team for the Tokyo Games, one with three striking personal stories.

Aliphine Tuliamuk, who won in 2:27:23 and by the smallest women’s margin in trials history (eight seconds), was seeded 10th of 510 qualifiers. Kenyan-born Tuliamuk, who has 31 siblings (dad had four wives), was driving an Uber and crocheting while sidelined by injuries the last two years.

“I did not see this coming,” she said.

Neither could runner-up Molly Seidel, also a first-time Olympic qualifier. Seidel made her marathon debut Saturday, three and a half years after receiving treatment for an eating disorder.

Third-place Sally Kipyego has Olympic experience, taking 10,000m silver for native Kenya in 2012. She gave birth to daughter Emma in summer 2017 and became eligible to represent the U.S. last August. She came to Atlanta seeded sixth, turning out to be the least surprising woman to make the team.

Missing the Olympics: 2018 Boston Marathon winner Des Linden (fourth place), American 10,000m record holder Molly Huddle and Jordan Hasay, the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner in history.

MORE: Olympic Marathon Trials Results

Soon after crossing the Centennial Park finish line, Tuliamuk grabbed a red, white and blue hat from her boyfriend. She had crocheted it for this day to show the love of her new nation.

“When I came here over 10 years ago, I didn’t even think that I wanted to stay here,” said Tuliamuk, who earned a public health degree from Wichita State in 2013 (and was a nine-time All-American for the Shockers). “When the chance came [to become a U.S. citizen], at that point I realized just how fortunate I am. I didn’t even second-guess myself. Now I get to live the American dream.”

Tuliamuk earned citizenship in April 2016. Last June, she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in her right femur. Tuliamuk barely ran until late August, instead developing a side business selling hand-made beanies on Etsy.

In her first race back in November, Tuliamuk established herself as an outside Olympic team contender by placing 12th at the New York City Marathon.

“I knew that I was fit,” she said. “I just didn’t know the extent of my fitness.”

Seidel was a can’t-miss kid. In fourth grade, she had a class assignment to write her biggest wish and dream. She wrote, “I wish I will make it into the Olympics and win a gold medal.”

Later at Notre Dame, Seidel earned NCAA indoor, outdoor and cross-country titles. She also developed an eating disorder, hitting rock bottom while attending the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., as a spectator. She broke a vertebra earlier that year because she was so weak from losing so much weight.

One of her best friends sat Seidel down in a hotel room in Oregon.

“I think she straight up told me, you look like you’re dying,” Seidel said on the Running On Om podcast. “That was the moment I got help.” Two days later, Seidel checked in for eating disorder treatment.

“I hate seeing photos of myself from that time,” Seidel said on the podcast, noting how she looked when she swept the NCAA Indoor 3000m and 5000m in early 2016. “Knowing that those are out on the internet, and people are seeing those and associating those with winning a national championship, that’s what kills me. There’s some little girl who’s running somewhere that might see the photo and think that’s what I have to look like to win a national championship. And I hate that. I hate that more than anything.”

Seidel had more recent obstacles. She said she was on crutches after placing 13th in the Peachtree Road Race 10km on July 4 in Atlanta.

“My coach and I just had a crazy idea that we might try this and see how it went,” said Seidel, who qualified for trials via a December half marathon. “We had nothing to lose. I’m really grateful for the people around me who are just as dumb as I am.”

Kipyego, the lone qualifier with Olympic experience, moved to the U.S. from Kenya 15 years ago on a college scholarship. She became a U.S. citizen in 2017 but her competition representation switch from Kenya wasn’t finalized until August.

“I always knew that I wanted to be an American,” Kipyego said. “That had little to do with running. … I’ve been able to pay for tuition for children back in Kenya. I’ve been able to support my family, my extended family.”

Kipyego said it took more than a year to recover from childbirth. She couldn’t put together a month straight of training without getting fatigued or ill. She considered quitting often.

“A lot of women have children, they come back and they run and they’re fantastic,” she said. “That was not my story.”

On a podium with Tuliamuk and Seidel to her right, Kipyego closed the post-race press conference with a line applicable to all three.

“I have struggled,” she said. “Today, I was victorious. I was victorious because of where I came from.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics