“The art side of me comes out when I talk about it, because it was definitely on the right side of the brain that the experience was happening. It was almost like very sensational, visual, creative, colored, complex. I’ll get too weird talking about it.” — Sarah Attar, on her 800-meter run for Saudi Arabia in the 2012 London Olympics
TEMECULA, Calif. — Most Olympians greet Olympics as a culmination; Sarah Attar knew it as a spark. The Olympics helped usher the Californian daughter of an American mother and a Saudi father from serious runner to serious, serious runner. As one of the first two women to represent Saudi Arabia in an Olympics, Attar’s bafflement is unmistakable when she finds herself uttering, “So I kind of did the Olympics first, and then I’m doing all the hard work to get there again.”
Then come the guffaws from her father, Amer, and her mother, Judy, up-close spectators to this crazy, unforeseeable ride.
One summer day in 2012, Attar, then a member of the Pepperdine University cross country team, ran a distance (800 meters) to which she felt unsuited, finished both a distant last and, in another sense, a breakthrough first, and drew standing cheers from 80,000 at London’s Olympic Stadium. Then she came home to her junior year as “a classic overcommitted college overachiever,” as she put it, before widening, deepening and toughening her athleticism.
She has run every Boston Marathon since. She clocked a personal-best 3:11:27 at the Chicago Marathon of October 2015. At 23, far shy of peak age for a typical marathoner, she aspires to run all major marathons, and lo and behold, that will include the Olympic Marathon in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 14, as the Saudi Olympic Committee announced officially last week in Riyadh. As the largest of the last three countries to send female athletes to the Olympics — as happened in 2012 — Saudi Arabia has doubled its female roster to four.
Attar’s coach, Andrew Kastor, wrote in an email that her “training volume” had rocketed from 60 miles per week to “near 90,” as she has gained “aerobic/physical and mental strength” in the “rarefied air of Mammoth Lakes,” Calif. He credited her with “the right amount of spirit and courage I see in most seasoned and mature marathon racers,” and with eagerness as “a student of the sport, learning all she can from her mentors on the team.”
Those include his wife, Deena Kastor, the American-record holder and 2004 Olympic bronze medalist.
It’s another stage in an implausible whoosh. Maybe it began at Escondido High School, not far from San Diego, where a soccer and volleyball teammate asked whether Attar would join her at cross country as well. Or maybe it began in the winter of 2012 in Saudi Arabia, where Arwa Mutabagani, herself an equestrian expert and the first female member of the Saudi Olympic Committee, long had hoped for female Saudi participants. By Amer Attar’s recollection, one of Mutabagani’s relatives happened to mention this possibility to one of Amer Attar’s brothers, who said, “You know, I have a niece that runs track in college.”
By February 2012, Mutabagani had contacted the Attars and bewildered their middle child of three.
“The Olympics was always what these amazing, elite athletes do, that I just watch on TV, and I observe,” Sarah Attar said, “and then to be part of it, where I never would have anticipated that in my life was just, like, so wild.”
They requested her running times.
“And I remember thinking, okay, well, they’ll see my times and I’m not an Olympic-qualified athlete,” she said. “So I just kind of brushed it off. And I remember when it first even was something, I was talking to my mom and I was like, ‘Wait, which Olympics? The one in a few months?’ So that just shows, it was kind of so crazy.”
The odyssey intensified as Attar proved London-bound — with her parents, sister and brother traveling alongside — as one of the wild-card entries the International Olympic Committee encourages to increase global participation.
“She even said it on a few occasions,” Amer Attar said, his eyes beaming. “You get these people dedicating their lives for four years and eight years just to try and make an Olympic team. And here, somebody says, ‘Hey would you like to be in the Olympics?’ ”
Then came his excellent laugh.
As a 19-year-old who had lived entirely in the United States but visited her father’s homeland roughly annually, she entered the stadium with the Saudi delegation — including Mutabagani, the male athletes who Attar said were “so great and excited to have us there” and Wojdan Shaherkani, a 16-year-old Saudi-based female judoka whom Attar called “the sweetest person.” A wee social-media ruckus greeted the photos of the delegation with the women walking behind the men, but Attar called that pattern inadvertent and said it may have stemmed from a natural urge to save the revelations for last. Mutabagani “emphasized to me” that she felt deeply moved, Sarah Attar said.
On the track, things felt strange but not nerve-wracking. High school meets had dredged more tension. The 800 was not her specialty or even close. She had been training at the marathon, working “slow-twitch muscles,” she said. She was participating, not racing. “I just was going into it not wanting to get lapped in a two-lap race,” she said.
She raced “outside myself, in a way.”
“You couldn’t feel your legs,” her mother reminded her.
“I was just running,” she agreed, “and I think I was just so taken over by the whole thing, I was having to check to make sure I was still moving. I was glancing down: ‘Am I still going?’ ”
She didn’t get lapped by any of the other seven runners in Heat 6 of the 800 meters, but she did have 32 seconds running alone once the seventh-place finisher finished. “I guess it kind of worked out,” she said as her parents laughed again. She also said, “I don’t even know if I knew a standing ovation was happening. It’s just, like, colors. And people.”
Off the track and into the tunnel, she felt gobsmacked by the number of reporters. “I had no clue,” she said.
When she returned home to California, to school in Malibu, teammates called her “The Olympian.” An assistant coach opted for “London,” then changed it to “Rio.” She worked two jobs planning both outdoor tours and arts events. She majored in art.
Still, some impossible, exhilarating moments sprinkled across the big aftermath.
In Riyadh, the renowned Saudi street artist Shaweesh produced an image of Attar running at the Olympics, and when Attar spotted it on Twitter in September 2012, she felt disbelief, then again as it reappeared in London and in a Saudi art book. The family visited Riyadh, met the artist, took a selfie, saw the image. “It’s been interesting to see it, like, deteriorate over time, too,” Sarah said. “I guess that’s just the artist in me talking. The fleeting beauty of it!”
In line at a book-signing for Kathrine Switzer, the runner who in 1967 broke the gender barrier at the Boston Marathon, Amer pulled “his new ‘Dad move,’ ” as Sarah put it, and pulled up a photo to show Switzer.
“She gave her a hug,” Judy Attar recalled of Switzer.
“She was, like, very emotional. I was, too,” Sarah said.
In 2014, she had her first mind-blowing turn at being recognized, when two young, female Saudi students saw the Attars visiting the Saudi flag at the Boston Marathon’s flag collection. They said she had inspired them. They asked to take photos. Now they might see a marathoner who calls herself still only “decent” at marathons, continuing her startling ride, in a second Olympics.