"This was the first time I ran for anyone but myself. It was a powerful experience. I don't know if I felt anything like that before." -- Rosalie Fish
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By Cory Mull - MileSplit USA
Rosalie Fish was nervous.
As an 18-year-old Native American woman on the doorstep of a poignant moment of activism, there was a sense of curiosity as to how it would be received.
Would they understand? Would they care? Would it make a difference?
And that it came during her final Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association State Track and Field Championship meet last Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Eastern Washington University?
That was bold, too.
"I know there are people who might say to keep politics out of sports or something along those lines," said Fish, a high school senior at Muckleshoot Tribal School. "And this might sound a little irresponsible, but I knew nobody could tell me no if I didn't ask."
Fish had long made up her mind as an advocate for Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women, which is a long-running coalition that is shedding light on the pervasive issue of violence on women on reservations and the lack of accountability surrounding justice for those missing. According to one Justice Department report, women on reservations are much more likely to be murdered than the national average.
So this statement she was about to make, while vying for four state championships in the Class 1B meet? She knew she needed to pursue it, that she needed to represent these four missing indigenous women who had some connection to her life.
"This was the first time I ran for anyone but myself," Fish said. "It was a powerful experience. I don't know if I felt anything like that before."
Over the course of three days, however, Fish's statement wasn't for naught, as she won three individual state titles in the 800m, 1,600 and 3,200 and was second in the 400m. She dedicated each race to a MMIW with some connection to her life, and eventually found the footing she was looking for, inspiring not only competitors around her, but thousands more in the stands and many thousands more online through social media.
Not only did Fish wear paint across her face and legs, but she laid out, in writing, information on each indigenous woman from the reservation who were missing, and presented medals for each of them.
"She wanted to be able to win for each woman," Fish's coach, Mike Williams said, "She's run better times, but this was bigger than that. She was sacrificing that. She said it was pretty heavy on her running out there, thinking about those women. But she was willing to do that to bring awareness."
"I think what she did was really powerful," said Tammy Ayer, a features writer who had begun reporting on MMIW for the Yakima Herald-Republic a year earlier and whom was focusing on Fish for an upcoming story.
The idea to wear paint was spurred, Fish said, by an inspiration, and soon, a mentor. Jordan Marie Daniels had first worn a hand print across her face during the Boston Marathon in April. Daniels, a citizen of the Kul Wicasa Oyate/Lower Brule Reservation in South Dakota and a mentor for the Wings of America--a national Native American running program--advocated for 26 MMIW in April, gaining traction for the cause in various ways.
Fish contacted Daniels on social media out of the blue, knowing she wouldn't want to steal an idea first done by someone else. But to her surprise, Daniels responded with some thoughts and approval for Fish's plan.
"I was in awe when she responded and gave me support," Fish said.
The night of her first race, Fish found a secluded part of the bathroom inside the stadium. She covered her left hand with red paint, then pressed it against her face. She did it again. And again, until long a bright red handprint was visibly etched across her face, the symbol of #MMIW.
"We're finding that woman on the reservation want answers," Ayer, the reporter, said. "They've been promised answers and haven't gotten them. So younger women like her are saying, 'No more silence.' We need to talk about this, we need to address it."
Walking out of the bathroom Thursday night, Fish contained her nerves. But at first, her actions were misunderstood.
"I'm walking by and they're staring at me and I can feel everyone l looking at me," Fish said. "Everyone is saying 'Nice war paint.' So then, I'm getting frustrated. They're making it as an assumption that it's war paint. It was a little intimidating."
That's one reason why her first race, the 1,600 meter final, was so difficult. She felt a different kind of pressure.
"Each race was difficult in its own way, I guess in a different way," Fish said. "The , emotionally, I still wasn't quite sure what I was running for. And it was really hard. I felt so heavy. My arms and my chest, I felt heavy when I was trying to run. And it was a weird feeling, because it felt like I should be able to beat this record heavily."
But Fish was running out front anyway. She finished in first by 19 seconds, winning in 5:15.22. She missed the state record by a little less than a second.
That first race opened the doors for awareness. Afterward, she began to receive questions about the cause she was advocating for.
"When they started to ask me what I was doing, their attitudes changed," Fish said. 'Oh, this native with paint on her face, it means something important.'"
Fish went home that night a little more resolved, too. She contacted Daniels again. Why was that first race so hard?
"I said to her, 'My PR is this, the record is this, I'm rested, so why did I feel so heavy when I was trying to run,'" Fish remembers saying. "She told me, 'It's who you're representing. It's the lives of the women you're representing.' She told me to reexamine what I was running for."
Fish returned the next day with more confidence. To shed more light on her cause, she scribbled with red paint on her legs, MMIW.
"She definitely changed my mindset," Fish said. "I asked myself, 'What are my goals now?'"
By then, the high school senior started to figure it out. She responded in the 400m and 800m rounds, qualifying for each race's final.
On Saturday, Fish readied for her big day. She had race finals in the 800m, 3,200m and 400m, with some separated by just a few hours.
Meanwhile, Williams tried to keep her focused on what was ahead. On Wednesday, he arranged for Billy Mills, a USA Olympian in 1964 who won gold in the 10K and a Native American from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, to call Fish.
The 80-year-old Mills drilled in on something simple. Focus on what you can control. Focus on the race's themselves. That became something Williams stuck on, too.
"I told her, no matter what happens in this race, what you've done has been a great thing for all of Indian country and all of your fallen sisters," Williams said. "All you can do is go out and have fun and do the best you can."
Fish won the 800m in 2:20.93, missing the meet record by eight-hundredths of a second. Then she circled back in the 3,200, winning in 11:44.11--a full 39 seconds ahead of the second-place runner.
Finally, a few hours later, she culminated her state meet in the 400m. By then, a photographer from a Spokane Tribe, Alex Flett, had taken a photograph that would became viral. By Tuesday of this week, the Tribal Tribune reported, Flett's black-and-white photo with emphasis in color on Fish's red paint had gained over 500,000 views.
"I remember telling a fellow photographer, 'Wow!'" Flett told the Tribal Tribune. "I thought that was a huge statement, and I knew I had to capture this moment. I had no idea it was going to explode like it has."
Fish ran with her heart in the last race but fell by less than a second, finishing second overall in 1:01.25 seconds. But by then, Fish's statement had been well received.
"My goals was to be impactful," Fish said. "But I didn't want to represent the women in a way where I felt I could have done more."
Looking back, she said, the meet took on a bittersweet tone. While she experienced an incredible amount of success, some of it felt empty. She couldn't help but feel that way during interviews.
"My running felt more significant than it ever has before," Fish said. "And I had an interview with the 3200m where I was asked, 'How do you feel now that you're a state champion?' But it felt silly, I guess, trying to celebrate this because it felt insignificant to the matter I was representing."
Fish, however, knew that this wouldn't be the last moment she would advocate for MMIW. She's headed off to Iowa Central Community College in the fall--she's the first athlete in Muckleshoot's history to sign an NLI. Her eventual goal, as she told Dyestat ahead of the state meet, is to attend and compete for the University of Oregon.
But her activism, she says, will remain a part of her life -- whether big or small.
"I don't think there's a way I could run again and not doing something like this," she said.
While the entire experience was a whirlwind for Fish, the most powerful moments were smaller.
Some time after her last race, she was standing next to the poster board she created with information on the women she was representing.
A fellow competitor, Gabriel Salinas-Kieffer, approached.
The high school senior, who hailed from another of the state's reservations and attended Wellpinit High School, had finished eighth in the Class 1B 400 meter run on the boys side. He held his medal in his hand.
"He handed her his medal," Williams said.
Graciously, Fish accepted, tears beginning to duct down her face.
"Maybe that's then when she realized she really made a difference," Williams said.
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Contact Cory Mull at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bycorymull