Lonah Chemtai Salpeter’s dreams of running in the Olympics and receiving Israeli citizenship nearly collapsed in the winter of 2016.
Chemtai Salpeter, originally from Kenya, had lived in Israel for eight years, was married to an Israeli, and had a son who was born in Israel, but authorities still denied her citizenship. A medium- and long-distance runner, she had competed with the sports club Maccabi Tel Aviv since 2010, and sports officials told her that qualifying for the Olympic marathon would help her case.
First, she ran the Berlin marathon, but failed to finish the race. Her infant son Roy had come down with the flu, and transmitted it to Chemtai Salpeter. She couldn’t breathe, and stopped running at 18 kilometers.
A few months later, she ran a marathon on a rainy day in Tiberias, in northern Israel. At 35 kilometers, she started to feel dizzy.
“I remember they told me to stop but I said I’ll still continue,” Chemtai Salpeter told The Times of Israel in an interview at her home in Shoham, central Israel. “Then at 39 kilometers I stopped. I found myself in the hospital because my temperature went down because of the rain, hypothermia.”
She was left living in Israel with temporary status, not knowing how much longer she could stay.
The reluctant athlete
Chemtai Salpeter grew up in a small village without electricity or running water in West Pokot County in western Kenya. Sports were not a significant part of the culture and most members of her tribe, who speak the Pokot language and Swahili, do not like running, she said.
“There are so many great runners, but they don’t run. Our tribe, Pokot, they are warriors, they like to fight for cows, but they are good runners anyway,” she said.
She was a talented but reluctant athlete, competing for her high school in soccer and the heptathlon after her teachers selected her for those events. She quit soccer after she gashed her head on the field, leaving a scar on her forehead. She dropped out of a race once because her competitors showed up in cleats, which she did not own, making her feel intimidated, she said.
In 2008, when she was 20, she moved to Israel to work as a nanny for a Kenyan diplomat in Herzliya. She was tasked with caring for three children under the age of five whose mother was studying in Australia.
In 2010, the embassy wanted volunteers from its staff to participate in a 10-kilometer race in Tel Aviv. On a whim, Chemtai Salpeter signed up, despite having her hands full with the kids and little time to train.
I had free time in the morning and the evening. I got bored, I started running. It was like a hobby for me, nothing serious
“They asked who wanted to run, and I said ‘I want to run, without any practice,'” she said, smiling. “I ran it in 47 minutes. I was so excited.”
Shortly afterwards, the mother of the children in her care moved back to Israel. Chemtai Salpeter was still employed by the Kenyan foreign service, but without much to do. She didn’t know of any running clubs in the area, so she started running by herself on a track in a crowded park near her home in Herzliya, not knowing where else she could go.
“I didn’t have anything to do. I had free time in the morning and the evening. I got bored, I started running. It was like a hobby for me, nothing serious,” she said.
A coach of a running group in the park, Moti Mizrahi, noticed her training, and invited her to join his running group. She started practicing with them a few times a week, running her first serious race in Tiberias in 2011. She finished the 10-kilometer course in 36 minutes, placing second.
‘He said he will stay with me’
After Chemtai Salpeter injured her leg training, a teammate directed her to a physiotherapist, whose roommate, Dan Salpeter, was also a competitive runner. Salpeter invited her to run with him in some new areas to escape the crowds at the Herzliya park. He started coaching her in 2011.
At first, the sparks didn’t fly, she said.
“The first time I met him there was no connection at all. Then one day he came with another girl and I started to feel jealous and I started to say ‘what is going on with me?'” she said. “That’s when I knew. I asked myself many questions. I didn’t speak with him about it. I was nervous.”
She was reluctant to start a relationship, knowing eventually she would have to return to Kenya.
“If I will leave I will get hurt, so we became friends,” she said.
They continued training together, including competing in more serious races in Europe. Her contract with the Kenyan foreign service expired in 2013, forcing her to go home.
“By then I already made a decision that I will stay, so I didn’t take my stuff. I took my stuff to Dan’s house because I loved him, and he said he will stay with me,” she said.
She spent five months in Kenya, spending most of her free time running and competing in local races. Meanwhile, Salpeter finished his studies in Israel. Together with the Maccabi Tel Aviv running club, he fought for her to be allowed back into the country.
In May 2013, she received a visa and moved back to Israel. She competed in half marathons and 10-kilometer races in Israel, but even when she won, she was categorized as a non-Israeli.
A short time after coming back to Israel, she became pregnant and her doctor told her she could no longer run competitively.
She and Salpeter, who is Jewish, could not legally marry in Israel, so they traveled to Nairobi in August of 2014 and married in a small ceremony attended by her immediate family.
They brought their marriage certificate to Israel’s Interior Ministry, but Chemtai Salpeter was still denied citizenship, even after her son, Roy, was born in the country. Two months after the birth she began training again and competing in races in Israel, and the couple started eyeing the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. The Israeli Athletics Association was supporting her, and told her that qualifying for the Olympics would help her case, since no Israeli runners could qualify for the marathon.
After her collapse in the rain in Tiberias, Chemtai Salpeter had one more opportunity to qualify for the Olympics three weeks later at the annual Tel Aviv marathon.
She won, completing the race in two hours, 40 minutes and 16 seconds, nearly five minutes under the qualification time for the Olympics.
“That is where my life changed completely. I got the qualification and this made me get citizenship for Israel,” she said. “I felt so happy, excited, and I also felt excited that I’m going to the Olympics. It was two things in a row.”
With her victory, her case received national attention. She applied for citizenship again as an outstanding sportswoman, Channel 10 aired a segment about her, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev provided testimony and she received support from Kenya’s veteran ambassador to Israel, Augostino Njoroge. Njoroge told Channel 10 that Kenya had plenty of marathon runners and he would be happy to have Chemtai 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,” the diplomat said in the Channel 10 broadcast. “This is what good friends are there for.”
Shortly after, in March of 2016, she became an Israeli citizen, freeing her to compete in the Rio Olympics.
Heartbreak and criticism in Rio de Janeiro
The Olympics did not go as she hoped, though.
Officials in Brazil recommended she leave Roy in Israel because they worried the infant might get sick. Chemtai Salpeter was still nursing, though, and despite a strong start, she started to feel pains partway through the race, likely due to the breastmilk she was carrying.
“At 33 kilometers, in the marathon in Rio, I felt sharp pain and I said, ‘No I will not stop, I will continue,’ so I continued until 35 kilometers then I said ‘I cannot,'” she said. “It was like someone put a knife in my chest. I was so disappointed.”
Critics in Israel disparaged her performance.
“They were mad at me, but I said I have to be myself. I don’t follow what they are saying,” she said.
She returned to the Berlin marathon, successfully completing the race and gaining some of her confidence back. Then she started setting Israeli records, first for 15 kilometers, then for 10 kilometers. In the London World Championship Marathon in 2017, she took 41st place with a time of two hours, forty minutes.
The top of the podium in 2018
In 2018 she gained new focus and started taking her training more seriously. She was frustrated with marathons because her time was not improving and decided to focus on shorter races.
“In 2018, I changed my mind completely. I said, ‘No playing around. To train is to train, to run is to run.’ My coach always told me my training is not even 80 percent, it’s 50 percent,” she said.
Before the 2018 European Athletics Championships in Berlin in August, she trained in the highlands of Kenya for two months. She took gold in the 10,000-meter race, finishing nine seconds before the second-place runner and becoming the first Israeli athlete to win a gold medal at the championships. She stood atop the podium, singing the national anthem, Hatikvah, draped in an Israeli flag
She started working with a nutritionist, closely watching her meals and weight, and Salpeter’s family helped out taking care of Roy while she exercised. Israel’s Athletics Association and Olympic Committee helped fund her training. She began smashing Israeli records and her own personal records in 10- and 15-kilometer races in Europe, including winning international competitions.
Before the 2018 European Athletics Championships in Berlin in August, she trained in the highlands of Kenya for two months, leaving her son in Israel in the care of family. She took gold in the 10,000-meter race, finishing a full nine seconds before the second-place runner and becoming the first Israeli athlete to win a gold medal at the championships. She stood atop the podium, singing the national anthem, Hatikvah, draped in an Israeli flag, proud to represent her new home country.
“Even before, I asked my coach ‘When am I going to hold the Israeli flag?'” she said. “It’s important because I made my country proud, I made my family proud, I made myself proud.”
Two days later, though, disaster struck during the 5,000-meter race. Chemtai Salpeter miscounted the number of laps in the race, stopping too soon, a mistake that prevented her from bringing home an almost certain second medal from the games. She had been in second place before stopping and realizing her mistake, and ended up finishing in fourth place, still setting an Israeli record. Officials later disqualified her for crossing lanes on the track.
As she crossed the finish line, the frustrated Chemtai Salpeter collapsed to the track in tears.
Despite her misfortune, she still won praise from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Lonah Chemtai, you are a true star! You have brought great honor to our country,” he tweeted after the race, alongside a photo of Chemtai Salpeter holding the Israeli flag.
“I got more motivated after that and I know how to fight. To go to the race is to go to fight, not to lose,” she said.
She decided to try her hand at marathons again, looking towards a November race in Florence, Italy. She returned to Kenya for six weeks to train in the town of Iten at an altitude of 2,400 meters.
She won the Florence marathon, shattering the Israeli record by 11 minutes with a time of two hours and 24 minutes. She set a course record for women and her own personal record.
“Lonah Chemtai once again proves that there is no record that she can’t smash and improve,” Regev said after her victory. “Our Lonah is finishing a dream year with achievements and broken records, and in only her fifth marathon sends out a clear declaration of intent ahead of Tokyo 2020.”
She now holds Israeli records for 1,500, 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meters, the half marathon and marathon. After her record-setting year, she stopped counting how many records she holds. Certainly Israel’s leading long-distance runner, she is arguably the country’s foremost sportswoman right now.
I do what I love and I do what my heart is telling me to do
“I don’t want to count, I want to get more,” she said. “This is the year that I just get out, that I know what I’m doing, who I am, and where I’m heading to.”
Today, she feels settled in Israel, missing the country’s food, running its roads and her hometown when she is in Kenya, and wants to make the citizens of her new home country proud. She feels she has proved herself as an athlete, although winning races was never about redemption, she said.
“I think I made it but I don’t want to prove myself. I don’t want to prove to anyone I’m good,” she said. “No, I do what I love and I do what my heart is telling me to do.”
Looking forward, she plans to compete in both shorter- and long-distance races to build both her speed and endurance, and doesn’t know which events she will compete in in the 2020 Olympics. Her next major event is the 2019 World Championships in Athletics in Doha, Qatar, in September and October.
Chemtai Salpeter, who was modest and friendly in our interview, acknowledged a little sheepishly that she now sometimes gets recognized in the street here, and isn’t entirely comfortable with attention. But she does want to utilize her success to inspire more Israeli girls to compete in running.
“I see it in judo, in gymnastics, so I hope one day there will be more ladies (running)… I see the men are more than us in Israel, they are running a lot,” she said. “I think I can inspire more ladies in the future. I want to be a role model for the Israeli girls.”