Staying American

If all had gone to plan, 2016 would have marked the year I’d first represent Austria in the Olympic Marathon.

No, it never even got to the stage of writing contracts or contacting immigration, but discussions with a higher up in the Viennese Track and Field Association began in March of 2010, and for months I weighed the cost and benefits of eventually competing for Austria versus staying American.

We all know how this story ends. I am in no way judging anyone who has made the choice to transplant themselves and take on a new citizenship. If my grandmother hadn’t done that twice in her life, I wouldn’t be here. Who can say whether things would have been better or worse if I had chosen the other path. But here’s all I do know:

  • I never would have come back to the US and joined ZAP Fitness
  • Without ZAP, I never would have had a coach who expected unbelievable things of me or teammates like Dave Jankowski who emphatically told me I could do those big things, Alissa McKaig Doehla who showed me how to get it done, and Cole Atkins who supported me every step of the way.
  • Speaking of Cole, I never would have met my husband.
  • I would have been one of only 2 women under the Olympic A standard in 2010-2015 (if I ever achieved that level without the support of ZAP and the competitive world of US distance running)
  • My German would have stayed fluent, and I would have sounded even more Austrian than I already do.

 

Background

In kindergarten, my favorite band was The Beatles. I would use the cassette player in the reading corner to listen to the White Album during “free time.” By third grade, my favorite album was Blue by Joni Mitchell, and by 5th grade, I had memorized the lyrics to at least 3 different Ani DiFranco albums. Nature or nurture, I was drawn to activism.

imp

I’m three-quarters umpteenth-generation American (Scotch-Irish and Swiss-German), one-eighth Catholic Slovenian-Austrian and one-eighth Jewish Czech-Austrian. But somehow that last eighth seemed to outweigh all the others when it came to our family’s view on the world and politics. And for some reason I grew up knowing more about World War II in Europe than I knew about the history of Virginia.

In addition to my father’s parents speaking German to each other in the home, there were periods of my life when it seemed like all of my mother’s many friends came from anywhere but America. Then there were the teenage exchange students from Germany and Finland and the Bosnian refugee who all lived with us while I was in elementary school.

By age 13 I had visited 45 American States and traveled abroad to Iceland, Austria, Hungary, England, Scotland, France, Spain, and Portugal.

This is all to say that I had a slightly different perspective of America than a lot of other middle-class American kids my age. And since one of my favorite musical artists at the time was fairly critical of a lot of US policy, it was only logical that I wasn’t a huge fan either.

Then in the fall of my sophomore year of high school, September 11th happened. Out came the American Flag magnets and basically everywhere you looked, there was American Patriotism. George W. Bush led us into war in Iraq, and as our frenzied love for our nation grew, the rest of the world’s distaste for us matched it.

 

Germany

Less than a year after that national tragedy, my 16-year-old self was sitting on a plane to Germany to go spend 11 months in a country that I had never seen. It was something I had known I wanted to do since I was in kindergarten when we hosted a German exchange student in our home. I remember learning about the word “exchange” and realizing that it meant that if she came to us, someone from our family would do the same. I had to go to Germany.

I wanted to know more about my father’s mother’s family. Her parents were from Austria but had fled to Iceland during the war, saving the lives of their children, but not managing to do the same for my great-grandmother’s parents. My grandmother returned to Vienna as a teenager following the war, where she met my American grandfather, a recent college grad pursuing a career in music.

However, I didn’t realize that by taking the Congress-Bundestag Exchange, a program between Germany and the US, I would be sent to a country about as different from Austria as America is. I spent the year in a tiny town near the Dutch border called Geldern, in the region called Nordrhein-Westfallen.

The group of American CBers. That's me in the red on the right, just before we returned to the US.

The group of American CBers. That’s me in the red on the right, just before we returned to the US.

 

It is still the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took the trajectory of my life for a hard left turn. I went away to Germany as a shy, mopey, insular, unathletic monolingual with body image issues. I came home outgoing, confident, patriotic, bilingual, and a runner. But the time in between was no picnic.

I took a lot of crap for being an American abroad during the Bush era. I tried so hard to look and sound German that by the end of my stay, a new friend thought I was pulling one over on him when I told him I was an American exchange student. But oddly enough, all that year did was finally make me understand that no matter what I did or where I was, I would always be American.

Just before departing Germany for good, I remember hearing the American National Anthem again for the first time and being moved to tears.

 

Austria

Fast forward 5 more years and a college degree later. I moved back to Europe in the fall of 2008, just in time for the biggest American election of my lifetime. I will never forget the day that Barack Obama was elected. This article written by Bill Kole (who later became a good friend of mine) expressed it perfectly.

From one day to the next, my American citizenship went from being a thing to hide to a thing that I wanted everyone to know. I had spent weeks explaining the American electoral process to all of my English classes full of Austrian children. And following each of the lessons, the teachers would express their doubt that the US could overcome its deep-seeded racism and elect a black president. I could not have been prouder to see our nation prove them wrong.

Suddenly I understood my Dutch host mother from my year abroad in Germany. Despite her 40 years spent in Germany, she chose to still speak with a Dutch accent and dress in a way that made her nationality unmistakable. I had never understood her unwillingness to assimilate. But the truth was she was proud of her country and loved it.

After the election, I totally understood. Although I made great efforts to speak German as much as possible and even sound more like an Austrian, I no longer tried to hide my Americanness. Yes, I was that girl wearing running shoes and sweatpants to the supermarket. I was the one wearing shorts and a sports bra in the park when it was over 50 degrees out.

The Austrian XC Championships - I lost to the 19-year-old on the right, Jennifer Wenth, who is still the Austrian all-star.

That’s me being the American wearing no clothes in the Austrian XC Championships (March 2010). I lost to the 19-year-old on the right, Jennifer Wenth, who is still an Austrian all-star.

In the summer between my two years in Vienna, I came back to the US and spent my last few weeks in Boston before starting back up teaching in Vienna. It was there that I met Terrance Shea, who was coaching the elite side of the BAA club team at that time. Depending on who you ask, it was either his idea or mine that he should start coaching me. Either way, my life wouldn’t have been the same without that decision.

Terry coached me remotely for several months through the fall of my second year abroad, and after a lackluster first year abroad of just mileage, I was finally getting back into my college PR shape by October. The following January, 2010, I ran over a 2-minute PR of 1:18:55 for an all-out flat Half Marathon, and a month later I ran 1:20:31, 1:19:16 for a total time of 2:39:47 at the 2010 Seville Marathon.

Seville

Rounding the stadium before entering for my big emotion-filled finish.

 

Citizenship Soul Searching

That turned a lot of heads. While I was contacting groups in the US to see if they would consider me with that time, there were others in Austria wondering if I might like to stick around. By March, I had been approached by an officer of the Wiener Leichtathletik-Verband, who also worked for a major bank, and wanted to know if I liked being in Vienna and if maybe I’d like to one day compete for Austria.

Now mind you, I had never been recruited before. I chose my college for purely academic reasons, and had only ever been selected for programs and honors through an application process. This was a whole new ballgame. While dual citizenship is not an option in Austria, I was incredibly lucky to have two welcoming nations to potentially call home – a luxury that the millions in my grandmother’s situation never had, and millions more still yearn for today. The irony was not lost on me.

The deal sounded kind of shady, but it did promise to be financially better than even what many of the top-funded US groups had to offer at the time. And of course, then there was the fact that I was already the second-fastest female marathoner in the country – especially after that May when their 2008 Olympic Marathoner refused a drug test and announced her retirement.

I vividly remember running through the parks and trails of Vienna, pondering this decision. After all, my grandmother was born in Austria. My grandparents had met and fell in love in Vienna. I had at least four homes of cousins and relatives in the city, with whom I had become very close. I spoke German increasingly like an Austrian. I absolutely loved training there when the weather was cooperative. I loved all the high culture and beautiful architecture. I loved the challenge of operating in a different language.

Me (top right) rehearsing with the Arnold Schoenberg Chor on stage at the Musikverein  under direction of the great Nikolaus Harnoncourt in May 2010.

Me (top right) rehearsing with the Arnold Schoenberg Chor on stage at the Musikverein under direction of the great Nikolaus Harnoncourt in May 2010.

But ultimately it came down to these simple questions:

  • What was my goal in running?
  • Where does my heart call home?
  • Who would I more proudly represent, even if the chance of doing so is extremely slim?

And the answers were these:

  • My goal was to be the best version of myself that I could be.
  • My heart was at home in America, with American friends and family.
  • The United States of America.

I knew that going home to the extremely competitive world of US distance running would pull far more out of me than already being very very near the top of the Austrian field. After all, it was the US Olympic Trials standard that had kept me training and motivated me in the first place. If I jumped tracks at that point, I never would have competed (nor sung the National Anthem) at the 2012 US Olympic Trials.

I knew that in order to get the most out of myself as a runner, I had to go home. I had to stay American.

 

I had no way of knowing in 2010 that I would eventually run as fast as I have, win a US Marathon title, be supported by the New York Athletic Club and Skechers, or already have gotten the opportunity to represent Team USA in a World Championship Marathon. But I was willing to take that chance because the alternative somehow wasn’t worth it to me.

WorldsFinish

All I know is that ever since that first year abroad in Germany, the Star Spangled Banner still sends chills down my spine. I can only dream that one day it will be played through a stadium sound system in honor of me.


Check out Esther’s Skechers store! Any purchase will support her training and journey to the Trials and beyond!

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