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In just a few hours' time, Kenyan-American long-distance runner Aliphine Tuliamuk will make her Olympic debut in the women's marathon event in Sapporo, Japan. And she'll be doing it just six months postpartum.
Last year, days before the coronavirus shut things down, Tuliamuk broke barriers when she placed first in the Tokyo Olympic 2020 trials in Atlanta, Georgia. Crossing the line in 2:27:23, she became one of the first Black women to ever represent the U.S. in the Olympic game marathon. (She also had only recently recovered from injuries that threatened to take her out of the sport forever, making her win even sweeter.) She holds this historic milestone along with Sally Kipyego, who placed third in the trials and will be joining her in Tokyo on Team USA.
Growing up in a Black-majority country such as Kenya, Tuliamuk says that at first, she didn't realize the impact of her win until she began to receive messages of praise from Black women and girls across the world. "I am a first-generation African-American who will be representing the US in the Tokyo women's marathon team," Tuliamuk tells InStyle. "Young kids of color watching the Olympics will see themselves in me, dream bigger, and someday may become a marathon Olympian too — and that to me is going to be one of my greatest accomplishments."
Tuliamuk knows the meaning of dreaming big. Raised in the small Kenyan village of Posey with her 31 siblings, Tuliamuk didn't know any professional runners — or college graduates. She began running in fourth grade and, at 15, was selected to represent Kenya in the IAAF World Junior Cross Country Championships. At the time though, she says she was more committed to getting her education than becoming a pro athlete. After moving to the US in 2009, she first ran for Iowa State University and then made the transfer to Wichita State University, where she became an all-American champion. When she graduated in 2013 with a degree in public health, she became the first in her village to earn a college degree. Since then, she says, "a few more women have gone one to earn their degrees which I'm very proud of."
Still, making it to the top of her sport as a first-time Olympian doesn't compare to the joy of becoming a first-time mother, Tuliamuk says. "Motherhood has been incredible, I love watching my daughter grow and learn. It's hard work, but it brings me the greatest joy and blessing in the world," she says. Competing at six months postpartum, Tuliamuk is also setting an example of how strong mothers truly are — especially after all they've endured during the pandemic. The 32-year-old and her fiancé Tim Gannon originally planned to try for a baby after the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. But when the Summer Games were postponed, they decided not to wait to start their family and welcomed their daughter Zoe in January of this year.
Tuliamuk's plan was to bring her with her to Japan — but was denied due to Covid-19 restrictions. She fiercely advocated to the IOC President along with several other mothers —and are the reason that an official policy has been passed that allows all breastfeeding mothers to bring their children to the Tokyo Games. "It means the world to me because I can't imagine being away from my daughter," says the Olympian.
So, how did she manage to get into literal marathon shape so quickly? As any new mom who has ever tried to get back into running after a baby knows, the first course of action was focusing on her pelvic floor. After giving birth, she took a complete eight weeks off from running and worked exclusively on pelvic floor exercises, her coach Ben Rosario of Hoka NAZ Elite explains. "The pelvic region is extremely sensitive and at-risk postpartum, so we had to make sure that the entire area was strong enough to handle the pounding of running before we hit the ground again," he says. Once she did start running again, it took time until she could amp up her mileage — and it was nearly five months (AKA under two months ago) until she was able to do any sustained running at faster than marathon pace, Rosario adds.
Tuliamuk's ability to pick herself back up only months after having a baby is a testament to the determination and resilience she's showed throughout her career. Her coach Rosario says that in the three years that he's trained and known her, she's become "an ambassador not just for [Hoka], but for women, persons of color, immigrants, and for the sport of running as a whole."
Though she's already reached one of her lifetime goals of becoming a US Olympian, Tuliamuk knows that her real work as a "role model" — for her daughter and other young women of color — is just getting started.