Back in 2017, 18 year old Ariana Luterman was propelled into the spotlight after a split second decision she made while competing in the BMW Dallas Marathon. When race leader Chandler Self collapsed on the final straight, Ariana stopped to help her fellow competitor finish. Her selfless actions rapidly made news around the world. Now aged 21 and in the midst of studying at university, we caught up with her to hear the full rundown on how events unfolded on the day and the ‘completely insane’ media frenzy that followed.
Competing as part of the high school relay division, Ariana was one of 13 young women selected to run a 2 mile leg in the annual women’s marathon. Having been selected to compete for the previous 2 years, the 2017 race was set to be her last before graduating high school. ‘Previously I’d always ran one of the middle legs - I’d never got the glory of finishing the race!’ she laughs: ‘As it was my final year, I was given the opportunity to finish the race. Our coach's advice was to not try and beat the marathoners, just to simply catch them and keep pace with them. That in itself would be a phenomenal achievement and that was the mindset I went into the race with.’
Previously, the relay team had usually finished around 20 minutes behind the lead runner, but Ariana credits the events that unfolded in 2017 largely down to the fact that the team that year was one of the strongest they’d ever had. ‘We had some seriously incredible runners on the team,’ she says: ‘It meant that by the time I started my leg of the race, we were only about half a mile behind the lead runner - and that I had a real chance of catching her.’
Setting off as fast as she could, Ariana managed to catch up with the race leader Chandler Self with just over a mile to go. ‘That was such a cool moment for me,’ she says: ‘We had the motorcycle in front of us, camera crews around us and I was amazed that I was able to keep pace with this incredible athlete - it was just the two of us running together and it was a wonderful experience.’
As they approached the final straight of the race, Ariana noticed something wasn’t quite right. ‘Chandler was starting to slow down,’ she says: ‘I assumed that it was because we were ahead of the other racers by a long way and that she was tiring from the distance she’d run.’ With just 800m to go until the finish line, Chandler fell to the ground. ‘Immediately I thought she’d just tripped, as she popped back up and kept on running,’ she says: ‘But we didn't get much further before she went down again - and then again, and again and again.’
Realising Chandler was struggling to get up, Ariana made the split second decision to stop and help her back to her feet. ‘I didn’t even think twice. I would say anyone in my position would have done the same thing. There is a real camaraderie in running and such a sense of community in every group of runners around the world. There was no way I wasn’t going to help her.’ she says.
In a dramatic climax to the race, Ariana repeatedly helped Chandler to her feet, urging her to continue. To ensure she wasn’t classed as the winner, Ariana was careful to stand behind her as she helped her cross the finish line. ‘I always think the finishing photo looks a little strange, as I had to lay Chandler over the line in front of me,’ she laughs: ‘She was pronounced the overall winner and our high school took second place - I couldn’t have been more proud of that result given the situation.’
As soon as the race had finished, Ariana was engulfed in a wave of interest about the events that had unfolded during that final mile. ‘Those next 24 hours were completely unreal, it felt almost like it was a dream,’ she says: ‘The race director came up to me after the race, crying his eyes out and told me the story was going national. My instant reaction was ‘What’s going national?’ - it sounds silly, but I wasn’t really aware at the time that anyone had seen what had happened. I hadn’t really registered it at all.’
Still basking in the high of taking second place and the adrenaline of the dramatic finish, Ariana headed home to be met by 3 news crews outside her house, all clamouring to speak to her. ‘My first thought was that I had homework due the next day!’ she laughs: ‘I did interviews for the rest of the day and then the local radio station wanted me on at 5am the next morning - as you can imagine, I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night!’
The following morning as she was driving back from the interview, Ariana recalls switching on the radio and hearing them discussing her, before getting home and spotting the newspaper on the kitchen table with her face splashed across the front page. ‘It was completely surreal,’ she says: ‘I was just about to take a quick nap before heading into school - as I’d barely slept - when I was rung by another radio station who asked me to go live on air in 30 seconds!’
More news crews awaited her arrival at school later that day, along with bunches of flowers that had been sent by well wishers. ‘I was barely in class that day,’ she says: ‘Suddenly I was doing interviews around the world - Israel, Argentina, China, Malaysia - my social media accounts completely blew up, random strangers were coming up to me to thank me for what I had done.’
Reflecting on how she reacted to the sudden influx of attention, she admits it was something she couldn’t really grasp. ‘I found it hard to conceptualise why people were praising me for something that I felt that anyone in my position would have done,’ she says: ‘It wasn’t an innate thing that only I had the power to do - it’s just part of being human. When someone falls down, you pick them up, dust them off and tell them let's keep going!’
While she gained instant attention following the Dallas Marathon, Ariana was already well known for giving back to her community. Having become a triathlete at the age of 7 and competing in adult length triathlons from the age of 10, she had already made a name for herself as one to watch in the sport. When she was just 12 years old, she formed her non-profit organisation Team Ariana to use her platform to help others.
‘Team Ariana stemmed from an experience I’d had as a young girl where my older sister had asked for donations to a homeless shelter rather than birthday presents,' she says: 'Going to help give out items we’d brought with those donations was such a formative experience for me that I immediately wanted to find a way I could do more.'
Thanks to her blossoming triathlon career, she was able to combine her two passions for a good cause. ‘I decided to sell spots on my triathlon jersey to different sponsors to raise money for the homeless shelter,’ she says: ‘Looking back, it probably wasn’t a very tough sell! In the end, I was able to raise over $300,000. I’m so grateful I was able to help them and it’s something I hope to use to help other causes in the future.’
With aspirations to turn pro after she graduates, sport has always been the thing that has grounded her and kept her focussed throughout her life. ‘I love running for the mental escape,’ she says: ‘Running is something that I’ve always had control over. Especially at the moment, when it feels like we don’t have control over what the future is going to entail or what opportunities are going to come our way - running is my coping mechanism for all of that. It’s a chance for me to be really present with myself, to give myself space for my thoughts and to just tune in to how it’s making me feel. It's just the best thing.’