Wright On: Tateishi was no running natural, but 31-year-old has learned to go the distance

As varied as we may be from one of us to the next as consumers of sports, there are always core truths we can agree on.

Regardless of the discipline, we know that, to varying degrees, athletics are for the young. There surely exists a long list of lifetime sports that you can play as long as you can get up and move, but generally speaking, most successful athletes start young, learn their way and progress as they age.

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But there are always exceptions, aren’t there? We are all singularly challenged and motivated and every once in a while we get a great athlete who started late and rose to the top in a rush, almost out of nowhere, it seemed.

Ken Norton never had boxing gloves on his hands until he was in the Marine Corps and decided to give it a try one day. Before he was done, Norton may not have been recognized as the greatest who ever stepped in a ring, but he will always be remembered as the arch nemesis of Muhammad Ali, who was greatest of all time. Norton broke Ali’s jaw and shocked the world.

Hakeem Olajuwon is in the basketball Hall of Fame but he never picked up a ball until he was 15. Kurt Warner was stocking shelves in a grocery store, playing indoor football when he got his chance and he then became a Super Bowl champion, MVP and a Hall of Fame inductee.

We might have one of our own to add to the Late Bloomers List, because Caitlyn Tateishi, 31, is surely on a path that has taken her out of long distance running obscurity into the sunshine of Olympic Trials accomplishment.

“We are so incredibly proud of her,” said mom Ali Tateishi, a preschool teacher in Hilo, speaking for her husband Gerald, who works for the State of Hawaii. “She always liked being outdoors and being active, and she just made up her mind to go for it and off she went.”

Indeed, less than two months ago in Duluth, Minn., Tateishi qualified for the 2020 Olympic marathon trials in Atlanta when she went under the qualifying standard of 2:45, with a time of 2:43.39.

This is a person who turned out for track and cross-country at Waiakea High School without denting the local record books. She attended college in Oregon at Pacific University, a small private school, where she got a new insight on distance running, yet through high school and college, she was more a teammate than a star, having not won a race at any point.

Running took a backseat ride for a while when Tateishi moved to Japan where she taught English, then she joined the Peace Corps and worked in the Luapula province of Zambia where she developed a motivation for distance running after reading the inspirational book “Born To Run.”

It was in Africa where the Hilo native discovered distance running and made it a true motivation in her life.

“I didn’t have time, or maybe not the interest to enter races,” Tateishi said of the work in Africa last week during a phone interview from Washington, D.C., where she lives with her fiancé. “I had a friend in another village and we talked about running a lot and we both wanted to do more.”

One day they acted on their conversations and decided to run the distance between their two villages, roughly 36 miles.

“We just did it,” she said, “because we thought we could.”

She came back to Hilo, entered a half-marathon, then another and another and somehow she became dedicated, maybe in an internal, subconscious kind of way.

“It was just a matter of continuing to do it,” she said, “I didn’t have some goal in mind.”

Stuff happens along the way to people open to that inner stirring to keep striving, keep working, one stride at a time.

Keep in mind, all of this interest in distance running occurred to Tateishi when she was nearly 27 years of age, entering marathons against women who have been training in earnest for years, sometimes decades.

An important moment happened in June of 2015 at a smaller marathon outside of Philadelphia. By then, she had won a half-marathon in Ka’u, a smaller marathon in Washington. D.C. in 2016 as well as the Hilo-to-Volcano 50k.

At Philadelphia, Tateishi, then 28, finished in 3:38.49, her best time at that point of her career, but she had hoped for a 3:35 time that would have qualified her for the Boston Marathon.

“That really opened my eyes,” she said. “I was sort of paying attention to my pace, but after I realized the difference in making it and not quite getting there was about two seconds per mile. I thought, ‘That’s nothing, I can do that.”

And she did, with an exclamation point.

Tateishi won the Baltimore Marathon in 2016, with a time of 2:55.42 and she suddenly found herself, at the very least, a capable competitor against some of top women marathoners in the country.

Baltimore is a big time marathon, and it was — two years ago — the first time she had won a race by breaking the tape at the finish line.

“Oh wow, that was something different,” she said. “I was so focused on my time I hadn’t thought about it and then as I got about a half-mile away, I could see the finish line and I remember thinking, ‘What am I supposed to do here,’ but I just ran through it and felt like I really accomplished something.”

That’s not to say she’s cracking the top 10 and making the final three best times that will represent the United States in the 2020 Olympics, but it’s fair to say that’s a dream at this point.

As of last week, 148 runners had met the Olympic Trials qualifying times, 31 of them in the A Division with times better than 2:37, still six minutes better than Tateishi’s best, so far.

By the time the Olympic Trials are contested in Atlanta in February of 2020, Tateishi will have several opportunities to improve her time and run with the “A” group, which receives travel and lodging benefits.

“To even qualify for the trials is a huge reach for me, something I certainly didn’t have in mind a couple years ago,” she said, “but to make it so soon? When I first thought of it, I thought it would be another couple years before I could qualify.”

A management analyst on the Social Security Advisory Board, she doesn’t have close to the kind of time that the top 50 or so runners have, plotting daily schedules with trainers or nutritionists, but she gets in her distance work where she can.

“My bottom line is that I want to see how fast I can go,” she said. “Women are supposed to be at their best at this distance in their 30s, so I’m just trying to find out how much I can do.

“I hit my goal of qualifying way ahead of what I thought I could do, now my thing is to find out how far I can take this.”

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Stay tuned.

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