Published Jul 23, 2021
While many of us used our time at home social distancing catching up on Netflix or making our own sourdough starter, Aliphine Tuliamuk decided to have a baby. Born in a small village in Kenya, Tuliamuk grew up in a big family with 31 siblings. She came to the U.S. to attend Wichita State University on a full scholarship, graduating with a degree in public health science and with nine NCAA All-American honors under her belt. She became a U.S. citizen in 2016, and since then has claimed national titles and is a top-level marathoner.
The 32-year old won the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in early 2020 and had plans to compete in the Games that summer and in marathons later throughout the year before starting a family. But as the pandemic cancelled races and delayed the Olympics, Tuliamuk decided to switch her plans around. It was a risky move, but after talking it over with her fiancé, they decided to try to get pregnant as soon as possible to allow her the most time to recover and train for the Olympics in 2021. She continued to train until October, often running up to 6-9 miles a day into her eighth month of pregnancy. Outside of her workouts, she spent her free time crocheting beanies and selling them through her Etsy shop
Tuliamuk and her fiancé welcomed baby Zoe in January 2021, and after an eight-week recovery, she has gotten right back into her regular training. Although challenging, she has been able to find a balance between caring for a newborn and training for the Games. She structures her runs, weight-training, and massages around her nursing her daughter (often bringing her along in a stroller), and has managed to avoid being away from her daughter for more than three hours at a time.
She was prepared to say a longer goodbye in order to compete in the Olympics. Initially Tokyo had instated a ban on foreign visitors to the Games this year, including family, outside of some support staff for the athletes, unless under “special exceptional circumstances” to try to limit the spread of COVID. Fortunately for Tuliamuk, on June 30, the International Olympic Committee announced that nursing infants would be included in “special circumstances,” meaning that Zoe will be able to join in her mother’s Olympic journey.
Fencer Lee Kiefer is up to the hilt in accolades. Currently ranked No. 1 in the U.S. and No. 5 in the world, she was the first U.S. fencer to earn the #1 world ranking in the foil discipline- named for a particular shape of fencing sword- in 2017 and has become the most decorated women’s foil fencer in U.S. history.
The 25-year old comes from a family of fencers, with her father, sister, and brother all competing in the sport. She got into fencing at a young age after being inspired watching her father compete at a local tournament. Kiefer remembers clearing out the dining room furniture when she was younger so that he could teach her and her siblings footwork and moves. In 2019 she married another fencer, fellow competitor and Olympic veteran Gerek Meinhardt, whom she met at Notre Dame where they were both on the collegiate team.
Kiefer has a few World Cup medals under her belt, but no Olympic wins. The two-time Olympic veteran is going for the gold this summer, and in early 2020, Kiefer became the first fencer to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. But training hasn’t been easy during the pandemic--she has had to balance training off site with being a full-time student. Currently in her third year of medical school, Kiefer had taken a year off in 2020 to prepare for the Olympics, but returned to school when she realized the pandemic would delay those plans. She fit fencing training in around studying and practicing with her husband in the fencing strip they set up in her parents’ basement and working out in their make-shift home gym. It has been hectic and high pressure, but Kiefer hopes it will all pay off to become the first U.S. woman to win a gold medal in individual foil competition at the Games.
Akash Modi is one of very few Indian American gymnasts, and he feels proud to be an example for others who might not see themselves represented in the sport. He remembers feeling encouraged by watching his cousin and Olympic bronze medalist Raj Bhasvar compete and hopes to inspire other Indians that they too can excel in the primarily white sport.
At the start of the pandemic, Modi wasn’t even sure he would continue with gymnastics to compete in Tokyo. He was training at the Team USA facilities in Colorado Springs and had to fly home to his parents’ house in New Jersey when those facilities closed at the start of the pandemic. Modi was an alternate on the 2016 Olympic team, a five-time All-American, and had won multiple NCAA Champion titles. He had plans to retire after competing in the 2020 Games and move on to a life outside of gymnastics, but with the pandemic delay, he wondered if he should just mark that as an early end of his gymnastics career.
Instead, he saw the extra time as an opportunity to perfect old routines and learn new skills. Modi graduated from Stanford in 2019 with a master’s in mechanical engineering and has used his degree to improve his gymnastics. With training facilities closed, he adapted by practicing backflips and handstands in his parents’ backyard. As gyms opened up, Akash used his degree in mechanical engineering to think about floor warmups or corrections from his coach in new ways, seeing the mechanics behind his movements. Since the pandemic, he’s added more than two new skills, explored many others, and renewed his passion for the sport.
Ultimately, he did not advance past the Olympic Trials in June, but he enjoyed performing in the competition and feels no regrets over his Olympic journey. Modi will be an avid spectator of the Games along with us as he determines what will come next for him.
This Paralympic hopeful is gearing up to reach new tennis heights at the Tokyo Games. Dana Mathewson was diagnosed with the rare neurological disease Transverse Myelitis, which causes the immune system to attack the spinal cord. She was 10 years old when she was struck by intense leg pain during a soccer game, and in minutes she was paralyzed from the waist down. Mathewson was a very athletic child, and this illness didn’t change that. After a month in the hospital, her mother encouraged her to attend a wheelchair tennis camp. She tried a range of adaptive sports in following years, but it was tennis that stuck.
The 30-year-old made it to the quarterfinals in the 2016 Rio Paralympics and is currently ranked at No. 9 in the world and No. 1 in the U.S. for female wheelchair tennis players. She has said that she doesn’t want her physical differences to define her as an athlete. To Mathewson, training as a Paralympic athlete is similar to other athletes, with the same time commitments, workouts, dieticians, and sports psychologists.
Outside of her sport, Mathewson had just finished her Master’s in Audiology in London and returned to the States to start training for the Paralympics full-time when the pandemic hit. Her previous training had been independent, but she took the opportunity between finishing schooling and the Paralympics to hire coaches, staff and specialists typical for professional athletes. The pandemic gave her a year to learn from her team and pick up new physical and mental skills. In her first tournament of 2021, Mathewson reached her first singles final in two-and-a-half-years. Her full-time focus on tennis renewed her passion and dedication to competing in the sport.
In the long-term she plans on working in pediatrics, but Mathewson isn’t ready to hang up her racket quite yet. After competing in Tokyo, she wants to break into the top 8, continue pursuing tennis full-time and follow that journey as far as it will take her.
This year marks the first time karate will feature at the Olympic Games, and Sakura Kokumai was the first American to qualify early last March. When the pandemic hit, she suddenly became the last athlete to qualify for Tokyo in any sport.
The 28-year-old Japanese-American grew up in Hawaii but lived in Japan for college, where she competed and trained in the sport’s homeland. She fit international competitions around earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Kyoto and Tokyo. When the announcement was made in 2016 that the Tokyo Olympics would include karate, Kokumai quit her job, moved cities and has been training full-time ever since.
Her specific karate discipline, kata, is a solitary one, where athletes are judged on precision, speed, balance and strength, so Kokumai is used to training alone. But even so, the pandemic caused her to reset her training. The seven-time National Champion started training in a new home with weights, a karate mat and mirrors in her garage as well as taking her training outdoors to her local park. Even as she trains alone, she feels the support of her family, friends, and team. In addition to training, she also teaches her own Zoom karate classes online.
Japan holds a special place in her heart, as much of her family still lives there. She is excited to return to Japan, hopefully to becoming the first Olympic medalist in karate in Tokyo this summer, as she represents both the U.S. team and her Japanese family heritage.
Over the next few weeks, we will see the culmination of the past year's hard work and training for athletes from around the globe as they compete in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.