Friday, July 22, 2011

Eldoret Express’ tunes up her engines ahead of contest in South Korea

World 800m champion Janeth Jepkosgei prepares for training at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani. She is the most consistent 800 metres runner ever on grass, basking on the world’s lucrative two-lap race honours.  8. Photo/MOHAMMED AMIN 

By JONATHAN KOMEN, jkomen@ke.nationmedia.com

She is the most consistent 800 metres runner ever on grass, basking on the world’s lucrative two-lap race honours. 

And despite having picked the bragging rights to IAAF World Championships in Athletics three times in a row, Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei is not done yet.

The 27-year-old Jepkosgei has her task cut out as she prepares to reclaim the world title she lost to controversial South African runner Caster Semenya in Berlin in 2009.

Jepkosgei has the global title fixed in her crosshairs. She however needs to be at her best if she indeed wants to re-brand her 800m trademark “Eldoret Express” – the public transport buses plying Western, Rift Valley Nyanza routes.

But with a world title (in Osaka in 2007), Commonwealth crown (in Melbourne, Australia, in 2006), world and Olympic silver medals tucked safely to her trophy cabinet; Jepkosgei stands out has an edge over her opponents as she heads to the 13th IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, next month.

She hails from Kabirirsang Village in Nandi Central, where the world’s elite 800m runners come from. The area has dotted the global charts since the days of trailblazer Kipchoge Keino in the 1968 Olympic Games.

But Kabirirsang remains naturally special, spawning not one, not two but a bulk of 800m champions that would be the envy of any other country.

The tiny village is the birthplace of Henry Rono, the man who broke four world records (3000m, 3000m steeplechase, 5000m and 10,000m) in just 81 days in 1978.
The village boasts a collection of more than 30 medals with the highest number of Olympic, World, Commonwealth and Africa champions in 800m ever in history.

For 13 years, her Kabirirsang village was basking on the world record –then held by Kenyan-turned-Dane Wilson Kipketer –as Sammy Kosgei dominated the Africa 800m all-time best for 26 years.

Bigger slice of the glory

So keen has been their enthusiasm to sweep the 800m title that it has made the world wonder what makes them claim a bigger slice of the glory. Their victory has been so consistent that it demands a closer look at their training programmes.

And Jepkosgei, who bagged the global title in Osaka in 2007 and settled for silver in 2009, now wants to pull a fast one on her elite neighbours, striking a double.

She told Saturday Sports after her training sessions at Chepkoilel University College track last Tuesday: “As of now, everything goes on well. I am trying to get back what I lost in Berlin. But I should be cautious as this is a championships and anything surprise crop up.”

In Berlin, Jepkosgei went through a tough challenge as her title defence move was almost over after she was tripped in the heats, but was allowed to proceed to the next round by a Jury of Appeal.
“Everything now depends on how I plan and feel in the three-days of competition.

Here, I have the world championships experience and the body response is even than 2006 and 2007 when I won gold medals in major competitions. I also have speed,” said the first born in a family of five.

But Jepkosgei said: “I am happy our senior runners managed to set such a tradition.

The onus is on us to maintain good performances and first strive to bring the 800m women world record to Kenya as our men struggle to return the men’s record,” Jepkosgei remarked.

“I now train with Eunice Sum, and I believe she will too make an impact. I want to step up to 1,500m after next year’s London Olympic Games.”
Her intentions are to leave a mark, literally, at the Olympic Games.

“It is about time I do something unique. I want to double up 800m and 1,500m in the Olympics. Right now, I prepare for the world championships but my mind is also focused on the Olympics,” said Jepkosgei, who trains under the Italian Rosa Associati stable.
Jepkosgei, who won also won a silver medal at the Africa Senior Athletics in Nairobi last year, had bagged the inaugural world youth championship in Poland while a Form One Student in Sing’ore Girls Secondary School in Keiyo North in 1999 and later sealed her schooling victories with a gold medal in the 2002 world junior championship in Kingston, Jamaica.

She trained under Bro Colm O’Connell, an Irish lay missionary at St Patrick’s High School Iten. 
After school, Jepkosgei bagged gold medals in the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Malbourne, Australia and the 2007 world title in Osaka, Japan and settled for a silver medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Jepkosgei, a hurdler who took up the two-lap race by default, went down in history in 2007 as she became the first Kenyan woman to bag gold medal in middle distance in a global championship at senior level.

She is best remembered for dethroning Mozambique Maria Mutola, upstaging in a jaw-throbbing national record of 1:56.04.
That was too ordinary for the talented girl who needed very little effort to stir her 800m prowess.

The soft-spoken and welcoming runner need very little to stir her 800m prowess. Her Father Michael Busienei was an 800m runner, who competed against Olympic 10,000m silver medalist Ben Kogo in the 1960’s.

Cradle of 800m

At her rural in the tea-rich farmlands of Nandi, father Michael was quick to show the Saturday Sport where the 800m elites reside around.

“Here is the cradle of 800m. Just opposite here is Wilson Kipketer (former world 800m record holder) of Denmark and the other side is Wilfred Bungei (Olympic 800m record holder) and just near here is Sammy Kosgei,” said the humorous Busienei.

Ironically, the great Jepkosgei was at first not destined for athletics.  She wanted to be a nurse and started off athletics as a 400m hurdler.

“I took up 800m during the selection of 1999 World Youth team. There were no hurdles and I decided to switch to 800m,” said Jepkosgei, who finished second and picked her ticket to the inaugural IAAF World Youth Championships.

In Poland, Jepkosgei could not go beyond the semi final after finishing third in her heat. She however took the poor showing aside and went ahead to win the gold medal at the World Juniors in Kingston, Jamaica, in 200.

“I always believe in experience. I just finish my season and start preparing for the next one. Right now, I look up for the Olympics,” she said.

“Discipline, a good programme and having the right people is a something I treasure most. I also strive to upbring Winnie Chebet and Eunice Sum to succeed me when I leave the 800m race and I just pray God to guide me in this,” said the police runner.

Her training mates include world 800m silver medalist Alfred Kirwa Yego, Olympic 1,500m champion Asbel Kiprop and world marathon champion Abel Kirui.

Like any other Kenyan athlete, Jepkosgei also has a share of the challenges athletes overcome during team selections.

In 2004, she qualified for the Athens Olympic Games but was locked of the Olympic squad as she had not attained the qualifying time. She then shook off the disappointment, running personal best times in 800m (2:00.57) and (2:00.52) in Rieti and a sizzling 4:11.91 1,500m mark in Rovereto.

“That never bothered me. You simply go step by step and eventually attain your goal. This move even guided me after missing medal bracket in the World Youth in 1999,” said Jepkosgei.

The theory emerged at last year’s Africa Senior Athletes Championships in Nairobi when she was beaten to silver by Algeria’s Bouras Zahra on the line. And she immediately anchored Kenya to silver in the 4x400m relays.

Although none of her sisters took up athletics, raw 800m talent stands out in the Busienei family. “My brother Dennis Kiprotich, who is a Form One Student at Kipkeino High School (IOC-funded) is also an 800m runner,” said Jepkosgei.

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