Kenyan-born Israeli long-distance runner Lonah Chemtai Salpeter won bronze for the Jewish state in the World Athletic Championships women’s marathon on Monday in Eugene, Oregon.
Her time of 2:20:18 places Chemtai Salpeter among the top-10 best female marathon runners of all time. Gotytom Gebreslase from Ethiopia won the gold and Kenya’s Judith Jeptum Korir took silver.
Chemtai Salpeter, 33, was born in a small Kenyan village that had no electricity or running water. As a girl, she would run from home to school and back, 4 kilometers each way every day. She became a top child athlete and enjoyed playing soccer, yet her family was not keen on her entering a professional career in sports.
Chemtai Salpeter’s blockbuster life story brought her to Israel in 2008, when she started working as a nanny for the children of the Kenyan ambassador. During a casual run in the park in 2011, she was stopped by a passerby, who recommended she start training professionally in one of the running clubs in central Israel. This passerby was Israeli running coach Dan Salpeter, who would become her husband years later.
The couple got married in 2014 in Kenya and had a child together. Despite being married to an Israeli, Chemtai Salpeter waited many years to receive Israeli citizenship. It was only after she qualified to represent Israel in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio – and thanks to media pressure – that the runner finally became an Israeli citizen.
Chemtai Salpeter’s way to the top of the world’s female marathon runners wasn’t simple either. During the 2016 Olympic Games, she had to stop running just 4 kilometers before the finish line because of shoulder pain caused by running as a new mother with the extra weight of breastmilk, she explained.
The runner started the professional phase of her career at the late age of 28, after becoming a mother. Chemtai Salpeter had a promising start, winning gold and an Israeli national record at the 2018 European 10,000m Cup in London.
But a series of disappointments followed.
Later in 2018, the runner miscounted the number of laps in a 5,000-meter race and mistakenly stopped a lap early in the final. In the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Qatar, she collapsed and failed to finish the race.
Her dream to win a medal in the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2021 was shattered when cramps forced her to stop.
Nevertheless, Chemtai Salpeter won the attention of the press by speaking openly about the effect of the menstrual cycle on performance in female sports.
“Lonah never let hardships bring her down,” Israeli broadcaster Miri Nevo said on Sport 5, the country’s premiere sports channel. “She gave media interviews after every disappointment, in her own way of honesty intertwined with pain. But those who listened carefully, noticed that her tone never conveyed resent or frustration.”
Instead, Nevo noted, Chemtai Salpeter expressed “understanding and acceptance that ‘it’s all part of a journey … that, at the end, it will be OK.’ As an athletic prodigy and a true champion, Lonah demonstrated the ability to turn every hardship into leverage towards the next achievement, a better result, a quality run.”
Nevo noted that as Chemtai Salpeter has won a medal at the World Championships, “we can imagine her doing it again, maybe winning the gold in the Paris Olympics.”
Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.