Sunday, July 17, 2011

Track queen and scholar rolled into one

US-based Sally Kipyego Photo/Mohammed Amin 

By JONATHAN KOMEN, jkomen@ke.nationmedia.com

It is unusual for a Kenyan athlete to live overseas and return home to chase a slot to the world’s athletics bonanza – the IAAF World Championships in Athletics.

Several runners prefer to race and stay abroad for fear of stiff competition swirling around the national championships.
The national showpiece, which is often billed a mini-World Championships, offers a stage for sizzling talent from Kenya’s rural areas to pull a fast one on the elites, sneaking away with a share of the team slots.

But last week’s three-day national championships at the Nyayo National Stadium may have provided a turning point from the tradition.
Sally Kipyego, who lives in the United States of America, made the cut to the 13th IAAF World Championships in Athetics in Daegu, South Korea, due next month.

She beat the odds at her rural home in the world’s 3,000m steeplechase cradle of Marakwet to rise to global athletics fame and it is clear that the challenges hardened her.

Kipyego overcame heart-breaks in the cattle rustling and female circumcision-prone area to shine in the world of athletics.

But she is not your typical Kenyan runner. Despite possessing an athletics heritage as glory kept flowing into her family, Kipyego summoned wit and determination after a calf strain injury ruled her out for three seasons.

She is a younger sister to former world junior 3,000m champion Mike Kipyego and marathoner Christopher Kipyego.

 And, while struggling with the injury, she made a strange decision to shift gears from running to seek academic excellence. She attended Texas Tech Stadium for a bachelor’s degree in Nursing.

“I decided to go back to class. I realised running is a short-term career and involves risks such as injuries and loss of form.
“I therefore wanted something that no one could take way from me,” said Kipyego, the last born in a family of seven.

Took on a classy field

Watching her take on a classy field, among them world 5,000m champion Vivian Cheruiyot and former world cross-country junior champion Prisca Jepleting Cherono in the 10,000m final at the national trials, was simply breathtaking.

Kipyego, who unsuccessfully struggled to make the national team at the senior level four-times in a row, was the star attraction in the race as she literally chased the bigwigs down to the wire.

She was unknown to many local fans and Kipyego simply stood out from her opponents, thanks to her front runs and textbook running style.

The eloquent and friendly nurse has come a long way. She started running as a pupil at Kaptiony Primary School in Marakwet, where she wore the national colours to IAAF World Cross-Country Championships in Ostend, Belgium, in 2001, finishing eighth.

 “I was inspired to take up running by my brothers (Mike and Christoper). At home, there were many world-beating athletes and most of them also encouraged me. Moses Kiptanui (three-time world 3,000m steeplechase champion) and coach Boniface Tiren really helped me,” said Kipyego, an alumnus of Moi Kapcherop Girls High School in Marakwet.

The exposure and education are both a boon for the girl from the hilly Marakwet region, making her look different from the camera-shy Kenyan athletes. “I do not shy away from the media,” she said with a pensive smile.

Thereafter, she picked up the injury which brought a lot of uncertainty to her athletics career.

But the adversity could not stop the brilliant Kipyego from soldiering on to her dream career in athletics.

She immediately coined her maxim, “fighters never lose” which she has lived up to until now.

“The academic system actually shaped my destiny in education and on the track. I am happy this drive took me to another level, where I will represent my country at the world championships,” Kipyego told Monday Sport last Saturday during the trials at the Nyayo National Stadium.

Inspired by her brother

She added: “My brother Mike motivated me when he won a gold medal at the world juniors and I wanted to be like him,” she said of her brother Mike Kipyego, the former world junior 3,000m steeplechase champion.

Her achievements are marked with patience and a burning desire to excel, having sat back after losing four times at the national trials while trying to make her first appearance in national colours at the senior ranks.

Like many other Kenyan world-beating runners, Kipyego’s childhood hardships hardened her. 

“I used to trek four kilometres to school and back and that prepared me to endure the long distance.

I never realised this until I when I studied nursing,” said the runner, who hails from the same area as Olympic champions Ezekiel Kemboi, Brimin Kipruto, Reuben Kosgei and former world record holder Moses Kiptanui.

Fortunes were not up for Boaz Lalang, another America scholar, in the 800m final after he was tripped on the homestretch.

Lalang, who started running as a student at Timboroa, has no regrets for losing a spot in the Kenyan team to the world championships.
“I boarded a plane home seeking to qualify but I am happy for having done my best

Although I was tripped in the final lap, the competition was tough and I am now preparing for next year’s Olympic Games,” said Lalang, who completed a Business Management course at the Rendlake College in Ilnois, USA, last April.

The 22-year-old started professional running in 2008 after he landed a track scholarship with sportswear firm, Adidas.
He said 2009 was a tough year for him as he had to adjust between class work and training.

“But I regained steadily and I think being ranked the third fastest man (1:42.90) in 2010 after David Rudisha and Abubaker Kaki of Sudan boosted me. The performance means a lot to me,” said the shy and soft-spoken athlete from Kamwosor Village in Keiyo South.
Lalang is quick to point out how his elder brother kept him from venturing into running while still schooling.

“He really wanted me to excel in academics. Whenever he spotted me training, he could beat me up as he simply never believed that I could make a good runner.

“But I thank God I was later proved right,” said Lalang, a close relative to world 5,000m silver medallist Silvia Kibet.

He is neighbour to former world record holder Wilson Boit Kipketer and former world half marathon record holder Lornah Kiplagat.
His athletics tale is not another cliché associated with local runners who graduated from rural life to global fame.

As a pupil at Seguton Primary School in Keiyo South, Lalang tilled their ancestral farm and herd their family’s goats at Kipkabus Forest in Kerio Valley.

He could not engage in any form of childhood sports as his elder brother closely monitored him.

“He instructed me to go to the forest with reading materials. He wanted me to perform well in class,” said Lalang, who trains under coach Brene Maccain with world 5,000m silver medallist Benard Lagat of the USA.

He has huge dreams in athletics.

“This is a career to me. I will put aside professional engagements and embark on running and, once I retire, I will take up business,” said Lalang.