When U.S. Olympic marathon trials winner Aliphine Tuliamuk, 31, heard the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be postponed, she says she and her partner “decided to create our own light at the end of the tunnel.” Tuliamuk, who was born in Kenya but became an American citizen in 2016, announced earlier this month that she is pregnant and due to deliver her baby girl, Zoe, on Jan. 21.
Her decision to have a baby and return to run the Olympic marathon about six months later — when the Summer Games are set to take place in Tokyo in 2021 — is unprecedented. Equally news-making was her sponsor’s decision to continue supporting her — she says Hoka One One, which has sponsored her since 2018, was fully supportive of the decision.
Tuliamuk has a news-making story in her own right; in Kenya, she was the first woman from her village to graduate from college. In February, along with her teammate Sally Kipyego, she became the first Black American woman to make the U.S. Olympic marathon team.
Her pregnancy announcement follows increased attention around what happens when professional female athletes get pregnant. Distance runner Kara Goucher, middle-distance runner Alysia Montaño and sprinter Allyson Felix broke nondisclosure agreements to shed light on this inequity when they wrote last year that Nike limited their contracts when they got pregnant. Their stories led to a public outcry and a congressional hearing, and now athletic apparel companies, including Nike, are beginning to adjust their maternity policies to protect female athletes. In February, running company Altra announced it was sponsoring two pregnant runners — Montaño and Tina Muir.
While Tuliamuk calls Santa Fe, N.M., home, she also spends her training stints in Flagstaff, Ariz., with her Naz Elite teammates. She recently spoke to The Lily about how she’s training while pregnant, what it means to be an American immigrant in the Olympics and more.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: There was speculation that there would be a baby boom during 2020, but actually more women have been delaying pregnancy. I understand that you were planning to get pregnant after the Olympics, but when they were postponed, you and your partner, Tim, decided to start trying to get pregnant. Walk me through your decision process and how you chose to have a baby during a pandemic.
A: Being a pro-athlete, the timing of having a baby is very important, because you are in a four-year cycle. I’m in the peak of my career. If we take this opportunity now, I have time to recover from the childbirth, go to the Olympics and then return and continue to improve. We decided if nothing is going to happen for the rest of 2020 and part of 2021, why not take advantage of it and not worry about having to take a break again. For us it was a very calculated move. I just need to be ready by August 7 [when the women’s marathon final takes place].
Q: Are you still running while pregnant, and how do you plan to return to training?
A: Yes, I actually ran eight miles yesterday, pretty slowly at eight-minute pace. But I don’t run every day. I’m just going by feel. I’ll take a break as soon as I have the baby. I won’t jump into running right away. I’ll need some time for my body to heal. I’ll try to be very conservative the first couple months after birth, and not be my ambitious self. Once we get started with running, we’ll see how the body feels.
Q: In September, halfway through your pregnancy, your sponsor Hoka One One signed you for another four years. What does this mean for future professional female athletes?
A: It means a lot to me that Hoka was confident in my ability to continue training after I have my daughter. They actually gave me a contract better than I had before. After Kara Goucher, Alysia Montaño and Allyson Felix spoke out on how their sponsors cut them or decreased their salaries, there was a big discussion on pregnancy and female athlete contracts. I don’t know if all companies are on board with retaining their athletes if they get pregnant, but I sure do hope that every new contract for any female athlete has that language: “If you decide to have a baby, we aren’t going to cut you off.” I hope that my story, someone who decided to have a baby between the trials and the Olympics, inspires other female athletes to choose to have families at the peak of their careers, but I also hope that their sponsors stand with them.
For me, I love running, but I also have other goals in my life. I didn’t want to delay my family plan because I was afraid of losing my sponsorship. What makes me happy is being an all-around person: being happy at home, happy with my job, and everything else in between. I want to be able to do my job and have my family. I’m grateful that I have a group of people who believe in me enough to give me that opportunity.
Q: What if Hoka One One hadn’t renewed your contract?
A: I [still] would’ve gotten pregnant. It doesn’t matter if a company doesn’t value me enough to keep me around. What if you continue to pursue this dream and you get injured and they throw you out anyways? I’m one of those people with a Plan B, like going back to school to get a nursing degree to help others. I am grateful to have this talent and the opportunity to make a living doing it, but I also want to make sure that no part of my life suffers because of it.
Q: After watching the broadcast of the trials, you were really upset that the announcers didn’t even mention your name until the end of the race. Can you talk about how this made you feel? In a video for your sponsor, you said you wondered if the lack of media attention given to your win was because you’re a Black woman.
A: I’ve had a lot of success in other big American races, and I never really felt ignored in those races. So, I was caught off guard when watching the coverage. Right around that time I was becoming more aware of my surroundings in terms of how race can affect how people look at you. I can’t say it’s something I dwell on because at the end of the day, I have never sought validation from anyone. I believe in myself and what I do. All I can do is do my best and shine and inspire people.
Q: How does this impact how you will mother your daughter?
A: I realize we still have a long way to go in terms of accepting everyone. People still have biases with people of color. I will make my daughter aware that she might be treated differently because of the color of her skin. I won’t sugarcoat it. I want her to be prepared, but I want her to be proud of being a multicultural kid. We want her to stand for herself and not seek validation from anyone. She’s going to be beautiful as she is. I grew up in a culture where body image and skin color weren’t something people talked about. I have a good self-esteem because of that. I want to instill that in my daughter. I don’t want her to be caught off guard.
Q: You grew up in Posoy, a tiny rural Kenyan village near the border of Uganda. How will raising a child in America during a pandemic compare with raising a child in Kenya with the support of your village?
A: We lived in multigenerational homes, and I babysat for as long as I can remember. Raising a child was never something I saw people stress about. Parents worried more about feeding their children and making sure they had clothes. So, for me being here, I’m actually terrified knowing I don’t have family around. My partner, Tim, has a very small family, and they don’t live close. It makes me sad to know that my daughter won’t have the same community around. But I will rely on the communities that I have in Santa Fe and Flagstaff. I’m not afraid to ask for help.
Q: You and Sally Kipyego (who took third place in the marathon trials) are both immigrants from Kenya. What’s your response to critics who discount your place on the Olympic team?
A: I am sure there are people who don’t approve of Sally and I taking those two [of three] spots on the Olympic team. At the end of the day, America is a melting pot. Almost everybody that lives in this country came from somewhere else. Just because you’ve been here for a few generations doesn’t really mean that you’re any different from me. I am here being a good citizen. I pay my taxes. I don’t break the law. I don’t want to waste my time on people that don’t approve of that. Because you know what? Again, I’m not seeking validation from anyone.
I know that I earned that spot. It wasn’t handed down to me. I worked my butt off. And I deserve it. Since I moved here in 2009, I’ve only been to Kenya twice. I have spent 99.9 percent of that time here. I train from here. I do everything that I’m supposed to be doing here. So, if you think that you’re more American than me, then that’s your problem. I’m not going to worry about that, honestly.
I’m just excited that America gave me the opportunity on February 29 to earn my spot to represent our country in the Olympics, and that I’m going to be able to do that. I’m grateful for that. Because a lot of countries, like Kenya, do not have head-to-head competition. They only select people who’ve done well in various races. And I can guarantee you that if that was the same selection process in the U.S., I never would have gotten that spot.
Q: I understand that your father has had five wives and you are one of 31 siblings. With having so many mother figures in your life, what traits have most influenced how you will raise your daughter?
A: The one thing that I will say is a strong work ethic. You have to work hard for anything that you want to achieve in your life. And it’s not just because somebody is watching you. You work with integrity because you know that doing the right thing is what you’re supposed to be doing. For example, I am going to put in the work of my training when no one is watching, so that when the time comes, and I am on that big stage, I can deliver. And that’s exactly what I’m going to teach my daughter. She’s definitely going to be more privileged than I was. But that is not an excuse for her not to work hard. It doesn’t matter what name I make for myself, she will have to make a name for herself.
Growing up in a rural area, we had to grow our own food, milk the animals, make sure that all the animals were home, and go to the river to get water. My mother did all of that while we were in school all day. I’m the second oldest of eight. She didn’t say you are going to stay home and help me. My mom never went to school, but she wanted us all to attend. Even though she didn’t understand what school meant, she understood that if there were other kids beating you [in grades], you weren’t working hard enough. She made sure that we went to school, that we had food and that we never stayed home. She worked very hard to make sure that we had a better life. And I want to do that for my daughter.
Q: You won the Olympic Marathon Trials on a very hilly course in February with a time of 2:27:23. Running a marathon at a blistering pace of 5 minutes 37 seconds per mile sounds like you have a high pain threshold. Do you plan to give birth naturally or have an epidural?
A: Epidural! I am not that crazy to want to feel the pain. I have a high tolerance for running pain because I can control it, but not other pain. I’m not going to base how strong of a mother I’m going to be based on whether I take an epidural or not. I know what I can handle and what I can’t. When I have Braxton Hicks contractions now, I’m jumping.
I grew up in a culture where everything is hard. I’ve seen what there is to be seen with a hard life. I’m going to choose the easiest route to motherhood. That’s one of the luxuries I get for working my butt off to get here. I’m going to take full advantage of what America has to offer me. I remember watching my neighbor give birth, and I was terrified seeing the pain she was going through. Even today in my village women give birth without any painkillers.
Editor’s Note: The article previously misstated Tuliamuk’s due date. We regret the error.