Michele Tiff-Hill – the first Black woman to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials

by Curtis Caesar John

In the annals of Black long-distance and marathon running history, Black women have been at the forefront of champions, even if they aren’t household names like Meb Keflezighi or Eliud Kipchoge.

One such woman is Michele Tiff-Hill.

Part of what makes her story so dynamic, aside from her running accomplishments - which I’ll get to very soon - is that she didn’t even start running until her she was 29 years old!

Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, young Michele Tiff was an athlete, as was her entire family. Her father, Benjamin ran on the same high school sprint relay team as his lifelong friend Jesse Owens and was also an accomplished tennis player. Her brother Milan was a world-class triple jumper and held records at high school, college, and national levels. Her sister Margot was a gifted tennis player who played on the professional circuit, including the US Open and Wimbledon, and was also part of the 1973 Cal State sprint-relay team that won the NCAA championship.  Even her now ex-husband, Rajne Soderberg, was the one-time Swedish record holder in the 110-meter hurdles.

But what Michele was most interested in was music.  “I read sheet music like kids read books,” says Tiff-Hill in a 2022 article on FleetFeet.com She began studying piano at the age of five, and by 10 was awarded a full piano scholarship at the Cleveland Institute of Music where noted music teacher Jacqueline Marcault took a personal interest in Michele’s advancement. Michele would go on to study piano at the Cleveland Music School Settlement and received a Bachelor of Music from the Curtis Institute of Music in 1974.  Her devotion to music continued, having received a Master of Fine Arts degree from UCLA in 1989, as well as PhD in Musicology from there in 2001.  

And music, unusual enough, was her foray into running.  

With such a sedentary talent, Michele took up running for exercise to offset her constant hours practicing piano.  Not wanting the pressure of measuring up to her brother, she would practice at UCLA’s track at night.  And like so many of us, she struggled at first.  But she took to it like she did her music - study, practice, get better, practice, surpass your prior accomplishment, and keep striving. After her first 10K win, she was approached by coach Eino Rompannen who encouraged her to run and break a 3-hour marathon time, which she accomplished in two years.

Yeah, you read that correctly.  

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