Betsy Saina races Olympic Marathon Trials in her 'dream land'

Betsy Saina races Olympic Marathon Trials in her 'dream land'

Growing up in a small village in Kenya, Betsy Saina referred to America as "dream land."

Asked why, she told this story: In 2006, two-time Olympic medalist runner Bernard Lagat visited Saina's high school, which Lagat's younger sister Viola also attended at the time.

A decade earlier, Lagat transferred from a Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta University to Washington State, eventually gained citizenship and then ran for the U.S. at three Olympics.

"Meeting Bernard was amazing," Saina said. "I just finished high school. I just wanted to follow Bernard and see what I can do after that."

Like Lagat, she did leave Kenya. Like Lagat, she became an NCAA champion. Like Lagat, she ran for Kenya at the Olympics and later became a U.S. citizen.

Saina was the fastest American female marathoner in 2023. She goes into Saturday's Olympic Marathon Trials looking to make her first U.S. Olympic team at age 35.

Peacock airs the trials live at 10 a.m. ET. NBC, and the NBC Sports app air coverage at noon.

Saina is from the same Rift Valley area of Kenya that produced the Lagats and before them legendary runners Kip Keino and Henry Rono.

She called herself "a village girl" with a type-A personality. None of her four siblings or parents ran. Though Saina did as a kid, she stopped for her last two years of high school to focus on academics.

After finishing, she sought a life outside of her Nandi Hills village. She began running again and met Barnabas Korir, an All-American at Iowa State in the 1980s. Korir taught Saina about NCAA scholarships, and she eventually earned one to run for ISU.

She successfully fundraised to pay for her first airplane ticket. She flew out in mid-January and was met at the airport in Iowa by then-Cyclones coach Corey Ihmels.

"Unfortunately, nobody told me about the snow," she joked.

Saina ran barefoot in Kenya and wanted to do so at her first race in college. Ihmels urged her to wear spikes. They compromised on flats.

It was a struggle at the beginning.

"I used to cry a lot, especially my first semester," she told Iowa State athletics last year. "I would close the door and be like, 'I don't know if I want to do it. I want to go back to Kenya.'"

At one point, Ihmels reminded Saina to work hard in order to stay on scholarship. She didn't know at the time that an athlete could lose one by not running well.

"It was probably more getting her to be motivated than it was me not thinking she was capable," Ihmels, now coaching at Boise State, recently said.

It worked. Within five months, Saina was runner-up at the Big 12 Championships in the 5000m and 10,000m and seventh in the 5000m at the NCAA Championships.

She finished her Cyclones career as an NCAA champion indoors (5000m), outdoors (10,000m) and in cross country. She graduated in 2013 and was inducted into the school's athletic hall of fame in 2023.

She realized a goal by making Kenya's Olympic team in 2016. After placing fifth in the Olympic 10,000m, she made a common move to road racing.

Again, it did not start smoothly. Saina failed to finish her first two marathons in 2017 and wondered if she had a future in the event. She credited a pep talk with Tom Broadbent, who later became her agent, in forging on.

She won her next marathon in Paris in 2018.

In 2019, she raced three marathons in a two-month stretch. Saina dropped out midway through the Chicago Marathon with food poisoning that Oct. 13, then signed up for the Toronto Marathon a week later and placed third, then was second in the Honolulu Marathon seven weeks after that.

Saina applied for U.S. citizenship in late 2019, received it in February 2021 and learned she was pregnant in April 2021.

After son Kalya was born that December in the U.S., she moved back to Kenya, where she preferred the babysitting options.

She began training with Joyciline Jepkosgei, the 2019 New York City Marathon champion and an old friend from a neighboring high school. Jepkosgei's husband, Nicholas Koech, became her coach.

Saina returned to marathoning in 2023 for the first time in three years.

Her coach told her before March's Tokyo Marathon that he thought she could run 2 hours, 20 minutes. Only five American women have ever broken 2:21.

"I was like, it’s crazy because my personal best is 2:22," she said. "I just had a human being."

Saina was pleasantly shocked at what happened in the race. She placed fifth in a world-class field in 2:21:20. She chopped 57 seconds off her personal best.

"We knew I was fit, but I was really, really scared because it's the first marathon after a long time," she said.

It held up as the fastest time by an American woman in any marathon in 2023. Saina tacked on a victory at September's Sydney Marathon.

She began the year having never raced a marathon as an American citizen. She finished it as one of the U.S. Olympic Trials favorites.

On Saturday, a top-three finish would earn her a flight to Paris — one that she will not have to pay for — and an opportunity to represent her dream land at the Olympics.

"She came to the United States to have this opportunity to better herself and get an education and go back and help her country, but then now she's kind of part of our country," Ihmels said. "I think that's really cool."

Saina has repeated in interviews that she sought citizenship and chose to represent the U.S. because of how living in America has changed her family. She used to send some of her college scholarship money to her parents. Her two sisters now reside in Colorado Springs and outside Nashville.

Now living in Kenya again, she rents out a guest house where other runners stay during training camps. She visits her childhood village often.

"When I go home all the time, I will get a lot of people who are trying to talk to me because they want to know how I ended up doing this," she said. "It's an honor for me to be that girl who came from nowhere and going around the world."