Emily Sisson has had to endure some long waits in her career. Nine months after her first marathon, an American Record Debut of 2:23 in London in April 2019, Sisson toed the line in her second 26.2-miler as one of the favorites for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta.
The superstar, who spent her final two years of high school in St. Louis County at Parkway Central before a collegiate record-setting and national champion college career at Wisconsin and Providence, turned pro after 5 years of undergrad and graduate school in 2015. And after 4.5 years of shining in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters on the track and the roads except for a disappointing 2016 Olympic Track and Field Trials, Sisson was seeking her first Olympic berth on the roads of Atlanta.
The marathon is one of the ultimate tests of one's physical, mental, and emotional strength. Sisson stayed in contention for much of the 2020 race, before ultimately pulling out after 21 miles. Sisson was heartbroken, but she and some others could look at the bright side and the fact that they would have another chance five months later on the track in the 10,000 meters or 5,000 meters.
But just a month later in March of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic would put life and sports in the United States and the world on hold. The five-month wait turned into 483 days as the 2020 season and Olympics were pushed back to 2021. Sisson survived the delay and came through big at the re-imagined Hayward Field in Oregon. At the 2021 Olympic Track and Field Trials, unprecedented heat forced multiple adjustments in the 10-day meet's schedule. It didn't bother Sisson though.
Sisson toed the start line in the 10,000 meters at the gorgeous new facility in Eugene. Sisson led most of the way and blasted away from field in the 2nd-half of the race. She left no doubt. Sisson won and set the Trials record of 31:03 for the 6.2-mile race and she did it in 85-degree heat. Olympian! After nearly 500 days, Sisson had secured what so many athletes dream of, what she didn't get close to in 2016 at the track trials, and what had slipped through her fingers in Atlanta.
Sisson went on to place 10th in the 10,000 meters at the Tokyo Olympics in August of 2021. That race, like all other competitions for the delayed 2020 Olympic Games, came in front of empty stadiums and arenas, with just workers, media, and team and athlete staff in attendance. COVID-19 concerns and precautions forced the restrictions when final plans were determined.
That was the last time Sisson wore the red, white, and blue of Team USA. After the season, Sisson focused on racing the roads. She broke the American records in the half-marathon and marathon. The selection process for the U.S. marathon spots for Team USA for the 2022 and 2023 World Championships was a bit odd and controversial, but Sisson didn't compete at the global championships after doing so at the two previous ones in the 10,000 meters at the 2019 World Championships and 2021 Olympics.
She entered the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials in Orlando as one of two heavy favorites with the current half-marathon record holder and 2nd fastest marathoner in U.S. history, Keira D'Amato.
At the halfway point, Sisson and D'Amato were two of 12 in the lead pack. The group crossed the 13.1-mile mark in 1:11:44 to 1:11:49. Twenty-five-year-old Fiona O'Keefe, making her marathon debut, took the lead right after the halfway point, moving to first at 14 miles. D'Amato started to fade in mile 16 before the 39-year-old ultimately dropped out after mile 20.
A pack of five separated themselves by 7 seconds at the 18-mile mark. O'Keefe and Sisson were joined by veteran Sara Hall, who also was in contention in 2020 before not finishing. Kenyan American Betsy Saina who ran at Iowa State, and Emily Durgin were in the lead group at 18 miles, in 1:38:16-17.
O'Keefe surged in mile 19, getting a 4-second lead on Sisson, Hall, and Saina, while Durgin dropped back another three seconds. At mile 20, O'Keefe's lead on Sisson grew to 10 seconds, while Sisson had distanced herself from the rest of the field, up 13 seconds on Saina at that point.
At 21 miles, with just over 5 to go, O'Keefe's lead over Sisson grew to 15 seconds. Sisson's lead on new 3rd and 4th placers, Caroline Rotich and Dakotah Lindwurm, was at 24 seconds. Sisson powered past the point she'd dropped out four years before, running a 5:32 22nd mile, boosting her lead on 3rd by 35 seconds.
With little reason to chase leader O'Keefe, Sisson stayed in control, knowing a top-3 finish would earn her a trip to the Olympics this summer in Paris. Sisson was comfortable and confident enough to not just cruise in, but rip off 5:10, 5:15, and 5:03 final three miles, though some of that quick pace is attributed to downhill portions of the course.
O'Keefe and Sisson thrived despite the rising warm temperature and humidity. O'Keefe won in an Olympic Trials record of 2:22.10, bettering Shalane Flanagan's 2012 record of 2:25:38.
With the jaw-dropping 5:03 final mile, Sisson also broke the previous record, crossing the finish in 2nd in 2:22:42, and securing for a second time, one of the most sought-after titles in sports, "Olympian".
The pair negative-split the course that included three trips around an 8-mile loop. O'Keefe went 1:11:43/1:10:27 while Sisson clocked 1:11:44/1:10:58.
Twenty-eight-year-old Dakotah Lindwurm earned the 3rd and final spot on Team USA. She finished in 21:25:31, making it three under Flanagan's Trials record.
Sisson was emotional after the race, excited to shine in front of family and friends.