“Whatever race I do, I always remember my nation,” said Lonah Chemtai Salpeter.
On Sunday, Nov. 6 in New York City, Lonah Chemtai Salpeter became the most famous Israeli athlete that few outside of Israel have ever heard of, thanks to her second-place finish in the women’s division at the famed New York City Marathon.
Salpeter, 33, completed the 26-mile, 385-yard course in two hours, 23 minutes and 30 seconds, only seven seconds behind the winner, first time marathoner Sharon Lokedi. Like Lokedi and men’s winner Evans Chebet (who crossed the finish line at 2:08:41), Salpeter was born in Kenya. However, her road to becoming an elite marathon runner representing Israel is unique.
Salpeter was born and raised in a village in western Kenya without electricity or running water. In 2008, she came to Israel and lived and worked in Herzliya as a nanny for a Kenyan diplomat. She took up jogging in a local park as a post-work activity. Fellow runners began to notice her consistently fast pace, and Salpeter started to enter various road races.
Three years after arriving in Israel, Salpeter met and became friends with Israeli Dan Salpeter, a physical education student, former competitive runner and coach. The two traveled to Kenya in 2013 and their friendship blossomed into a romantic relationship. They married in 2014 and Lonah gave birth to a son, Roy, later that year. The family currently lives in Shoham in central Israel.
Salpeter’s speedy rise to the upper levels of championship running is in sharp contrast to the slow process of becoming an Israeli citizen. She is not Jewish, and despite being married to a Jewish Israeli, she is not entitled to automatic citizenship under the Law of Return. In such cases, the process of becoming a citizen can take a minimum of five years. Fortunately for Salpeter, her running accomplishments helped expedite the process.
And the accomplishments keep coming. Salpeter came in first at the February 2016 Tel Aviv Marathon with a time of 2:40:16 and qualified for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. In order to compete for Israel in the Olympics, she needed to be an Israeli citizen, and became one just in time.
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