Lonah Chemtai, 26, member of the renowned Kenyan athletic tribe of Kalenjin, is Israel’s most accomplished female long-distance runner, and, having secured her Israeli citizenship just before the deadline, will represent Israel in the 3000 meter hurdles race and in the marathon competition at the Rio Olympic games this summer.
Chemtai arrived in Israel in late 2008, to work as an au pair for the children of Kenya’s consul to Israel. Eight years later she is married, to her Israeli trainer Dan Salpeter, and the couple has a six-months-old baby named Roy.
“I am very proud [to represent Israel] and I hope to achieve a new personal best time,” Chemtai told Reuters.
Chemtai’s personal best time of 2:40 for the marathon is relatively slow, compared with the world’s fastest runners — Paula Radcliffe ran the London Marathon in 2:15:25 on April 13, 2003. But in Salpeter’s view, “a personal best in Rio very much depends on the conditions, which can change from day to day, so it’s hard to know. … But Lonah still has tremendous potential to improve greatly over the next 10 years and even beyond.”
Chemtai is not worried about running the marathon, which she says “is not hard,” but after Rio she plans to focus on track events and hopes to represent Israel in the 10,000 meters race at the 2020 Tokyo Games.
Israel’s team for the Rio games, with 47 athletes (there may be even more) is the largest-ever Olympic delegation to carry the blue and white flag. From 1992 to 2008 Israeli athletes have one medals in every Olympic, and then, at the London 2012 games, the Israeli team came home empty-handed, so hopes are naturally high for medals this time.
Chemtai grew up in a village in western Kenya, where she says the natural conditions for running are better than in Israel, with its heavy humidity in the summer. “I prefer training in Kenya but I have to follow what the coach says,” she relates. “In Kenya there are a lot of [running] partners and there is high altitude, not like here.”