Three years ago, Sarah Attar, now 22, competed in the 800 meters at the London Olympics. She finished dead last in her preliminary heat, dressed in a uniform that required covered hair, long sleeves and pants consistent with female Islamic dress codes, but the crowds rose to a standing ovation for her efforts. The San Diego native with dual American and Saudi Arabian citizenship made history that day as part of Saudi Arabia’s first female delegation of Olympic athletes. Now the former Pepperdine University cross-country runner continues to inspire, having recently signed a sponsorship with the apparel brand Oiselle and appearing on a banner along this year’s Boston Marathon course, which she ran for the third time with a new marathon PR of 3:18:37.
What difference do you think your Olympic appearance made?
Just visiting Saudi Arabia recently and talking to girls there, they tell me how much I inspire them. So, even if it’s still just steps toward getting more women’s gyms or running events or anything like that to evolve—that there are now girls who dream of competing in the Olympics is pretty amazing.
What was it like racing with the wardrobe requirements specified by Saudi Arabia?
My mom and I put together that outfit, and the main thing that was different was the full headpiece. I don’t typically train in a hijab, but it honestly wasn’t a big deal to me going into the stadium racing. It was like wearing any uniform you would wear as part of a team. So that’s just how I see it.
How was the race received in Saudi Arabia?
It was televised, but some stations didn’t show it, which speaks to how it was controversial. Some people weren’t happy that I was running in the Olympics and representing Saudi Arabia, but overall it was received pretty well and over time became more accepted.
What distances did you typically run in college?
I did cross country mainly, which is usually 6K. Then my sophomore year, which was the year prior to the Olympics, I trained for the Big Sur Marathon that April. So I didn’t really do track very much. I did a couple races, but it was the 3,000, and I’d only raced the 800 once in high school.
So, why run the 800m at the Olympics?
Just my speculation on it, but it was selected more to get me in the stadium and have the experience with the crowd. I still wouldn’t have qualified at longer distances, so I think the 800 saved me from being lapped a bunch like in the 10,000.
Along the Boston Marathon route this year your photo is featured on one of the banners, how did that come about?
Honestly, I have no idea how it came about. I got an email saying I was a finalist for one of the banners and thought it was the coolest thing ever. We were saying if I wasn’t racing Boston this year we’d still have to fly out just to see all the banners around the city. So it’s a good thing I ran.
What’s your favorite run?
I do love Big Sur. I mean that’s what initially drew me there, the landscape. I’ve also always been very visual and I studied art so I’ve always been inspired by nature and that’s just fed my running.
Why do you run?
It allows me to connect with people and have opportunities I never would have imagined for myself. It pushes us past what we think we’re capable of.
Will you run in the 2016 Olympics?
It’s up in the air. I don’t know what’s happening. In my opinion, [Saudi Arabia] should have women representing them, obviously. And if I was invited again, it would be awesome to do.
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