Meet the Match

A Marathoner Seeks to Connect Moldovan Women

It is hard to believe that Natalia Zbirnea’s career as a marathon runner began with a clever piece of bargaining from her longtime coach.

Born into a close-knit family in Chisinau, Moldova, Natalia loved to play sports as a child. She tried soccer, volleyball, and basketball, always searching to find her true passion. Then, when she was 13 years old, Anatoly—an athletics coach in the community—was recruiting young people for running programs and invited Natalia and her friends to practice. The offer was simple: “If you come and try athletics, then you can go swimming in our pool for free.”

“So we ran,” Natalia remembers, laughing. “But swimming was really the most important thing for us kids!”

Running became Natalia’s calling in life. She trained for five years, but stepped away from the sport after her father passed away. Natalia needed time for her mind, body, and spirit to heal. She wanted to be free from everything. After this running hiatus, she called Anatoly and asked, “Coach, I’m ready, can I come back?” He replied, “Of course!”

In the six years since her return to athletics, Natalia has raced in marathons around Moldova, Russia, and Romania. In July, she travelled to compete in France for two weeks.

“Running has mobilized me to be a better person every day,” Natalia says. “It has grown wonderful emotions and feelings in me. I am more powerful. My problems melt away when I run.”

Natalia balances her marathon career with a full-time job as a consultant for PARIS21, an organization launched in partnership with the United Nations aimed to better lives through improved global statistics. In 2014, she completed a master’s degree in diplomatic studies from the Moldova Institute of International Relations to complement a bachelor’s degree in English language.

Outside of testing herself on the course, Natalia’s motivation also comes from a desire to tell her own story of overcoming tragedy in order to inspire and empower girls and women in Moldova. Through participating in the U.S. Department of State and espnW Global Sports Mentoring Program (GSMP), she hopes to bring together women in her community to talk about the importance of physical activity, diet, and healthy living as well as create a new network of friendships and support for Moldovan women pursuing sports.

“I want to be fearless in front of other people when I tell my story,” Natalia says. “I want to connect women. I want to be able to share experiences together—to become a family.”

Another driving force for Natalia is a desire to alleviate the challenges facing marginalized Moldovan women as a result of poverty. Among Europe’s poorest nations, Natalia grew up in a lower income family herself, but was able to attend university and achieve success due in large part to her mother’s sacrifices. In worse circumstances, women seek work abroad and children are left to grow up without the presence of their mothers. Stemming from poverty, issues such as domestic violence, prostitution, and alcoholism also affect Moldovan women.

Guiding Natalia in her mission to create an empowered generation of women in her country is Veronica “Ronnie” Tucker, vice president of marketing and digital for New York Road Runners (NYRR). With more than 20 years as an expert in integrating marketing strategy, Ronnie will be able to provide Natalia with the tool she needs for success; specifically, finding sponsorships, promotions, developing as a leader, and storytelling. Honored as a Game Changer by Sports Business Journal, Ronnie and her team at NYRR will support Natalia to maximize her own potential as a change maker in Moldova, from the track to the conference room.

Mentor Match