Aliphine Tuliamuk visualized the finish line of the Olympic Trials marathon long before she touched down in Atlanta in February 2020. The 32-year-old Kenyan American had won road races before, but she was the tenth seed going into this one—a long shot, or at least an underdog. She would toe the start line with more than 400 other women, hoping to finish in the top three. She’d thought about this moment for 12 years.
On the morning of the marathon, Aliphine is feeling stressed and physically off. Her right leg hurts. By the time she emerges from her hotel room, her coach, Ben Rosario, sees that she looks frightened. He gives her a pep talk and reminds her to smile. (“A happy Aliphine is a dangerous Aliphine when it comes to racing,” he says later.) Once she arrives in the lobby, the spectators milling around see an entirely different runner. Dressed in her team’s signature Diva Blue, she strides across the street to Centennial Olympic Park. Standing at the start, she’s self-possessed, elegant, hungry. When the race begins she takes off, her homemade red, white, and blue beanie quickly disappearing around the bend.
Throughout the race, there are only two nonwhite women at the front of the pack: Aliphine and Sally Kipyego, who is also Kenyan-American. During the TV broadcast on NBC, they’re almost always in the frame, but they are rarely talked about. The commentators—all of them white men—discuss the athletes to watch: Des Linden, Emily Sisson, Molly Seidel. Aliphine’s name doesn’t come up.
Aliphine has no idea what the commentators are saying, of course. She’s in the middle of a race, focused on winning, and the first 20 miles of a marathon repay steady patience. By mile 21, she and Seidel have broken away to become the front-runners. Mindfulness, Allie T., mindfulness, Aliphine tells herself. She’s an efficient engine, no movement wasted, her long stride smooth as she glides toward the finish.
Even as Aliphine steadily pulls away from Seidel, the commentators say very little about who she is or how she got here—about her Kenyan village, her American hometown, her multiple national championships. Yes, Aliphine was an underdog, but she didn’t come out of nowhere. She’d been consistently winning road races and placing in the top ten at major competitions for more than 15 years.
The 26.2-mile course is relentlessly hilly, and the final stretch is brutal. At the end there’s pain, but perhaps a reward, too. Aliphine arrives again at Centennial Olympic Park, an arch adorned with five gold rings above her head. She runs across the finish line, arms up, a miniature American flag in her hand flapping in the breeze. She’s won, with a time of 2:27:23. As the crowds cheer, Aliphine immediately turns around to applaud her future teammates as they cross, Seidel in second and Kipyego in third.
During and after the race, journalists and running experts called it many things: unexpected, brilliant, heartbreaking. These descriptions were accurate, but they missed the historic nature of the new Olympic marathon team. In punching their tickets to Tokyo, Aliphine and Kipyego were set to become the first Black women ever to represent the U.S. in the event at the Olympics. Aliphine emphasized what this meant during the small number of post-race interviews, talking about her adopted country with reverence, appreciation, and a deep understanding of the American dream. (She earned her citizenship in 2016.) “I’ve always said that making the Olympic team would be my way of showing my gratitude to this beautiful nation that has given me so much,” she told one interviewer.
The Olympic Trials took place on the last day of February. No one knew then that for many the race would be the first in a series of lasts: the last time watching sports in person, or boarding a flight, or hugging friends goodbye. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and normalcy stopped all over the planet.
Aliphine’s flight from Atlanta to Flagstaff, Arizona, where she trains part of the year with Hoka’s NAZ Elite team, would be her last for a while: the pandemic would force her to postpone plans to visit family in Kenya. As things began to shut down, uncertainty set in around the Tokyo Games, which had been scheduled to begin in July. To quell her worries while she waited for a decision, Aliphine did her best to keep busy.