When Lonah Chemtai Salpeter stood on the medals podium in Berlin on Thursday singing Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah, it marked the culmination of a long journey for the runner from Kenya who became Israel’s first European Athletics champion.
“This is really an honor to my country, an honor to my family and an honor for myself for the work that I’m doing,” an emotional Salpeter said after winning the women’s 10,000-meter run at the 2018 European Athletics Championships in Berlin Wednesday, completing the race in 31 minutes, 43.29 seconds.
“I still don’t believe it,” she said.
“I’m really happy. I dreamed of this, but I didn’t believe it happened,” she added, after coming in 9 full seconds ahead of Susan Krumins of the Netherlands, winning the gold medal. Sweden’s Meraf Bahta came third.
Her victory marked the first time that Israel took a gold medal at the championships. It also marked a personal victory for the 29-year-old runner who has fought a difficult battle to represent Israel.
Salpeter will receive a grant of NIS 40,000 (some $11,000) from Israeli sports authorities for her win.
The recognition marks a turnaround for Salpeter, who draped herself in a large Israeli flag after her win.
Born in Kenya, she moved to Israel in 2011 and had been fighting for citizenship for years.
She originally came to Israel in 2008, as a nanny for a diplomat at the Kenyan embassy. A keen runner, she was introduced to Israeli coach Dan Salpeter, and the two fell in love.
When her stint working for the Kenyan diplomat was up, Chemtai returned to Kenya, where the couple decided to marry in hopes of later moving to Israel. They now have a young son.
But her application for basic residency status was rejected several times.
“They didn’t understand her in interviews,” her husband said at the time. “She speaks English with a certain accent and they decided not to understand her. There’s no such thing as ‘We didn’t understand’; they chose not to understand.”
Israel's Lonah Chemtai Salpeter secures the women's 10000m title with an impresive display in Berlin#EC2018
Posted by European Athletics on Wednesday, 8 August 2018
Her case received national media attention when she won the Tel Aviv Marathon in February 2016, breaking the qualification time for the Olympics in the process.
She ran the Tel Aviv Marathon in two hours, 40 minutes and 16 seconds, nearly five minutes under the qualification time for the Olympics. No other Israeli women achieved the necessary time.
It was only after that run that she received the nationality documents freeing her up to compete for Israel in Rio De Janeiro. She failed to win a medal there, hampered by a shoulder injury.
Kenya’s veteran ambassador to Israel, Augostino Njoroge, assisted her with her citizenship bid. He told Channel 10 at the time that Kenya has plenty of marathon runners and was happy to have Salpeter run for Israel.
“Kenya and Israel are so good friends. We cannot hand you the medal, but we can give you somebody who can bring the medal,” said the diplomat. “This is what good friends are there for.”