Reluctant athlete sprints to the top - Daily Nation

Reluctant athlete sprints to the top

Monday March 30 2009

World women eight-kilometre champion Florence Kiplagat sips the traditional sour milk (mursik) on arrival at JKIA from Jordan on Monday. Photo/MOHAMMED AMIN

World women eight-kilometre champion Florence Kiplagat sips the traditional sour milk (mursik) on arrival at JKIA from Jordan on Monday. Photo/MOHAMMED AMIN 

By ELIAS MAKORI

If you spoke about athletics to newly-crowned world cross country champion Florence Kiplagat five years ago, she would have dismissed such talk as strictly for the birds.

Running was the last thing on her mind as she went about her studies at Sirgoech Secondary School in Iten.

And it was only after she learnt about running scholarships offered by US universities that she decided to give sports a shot.

“I was looking for a scholarship,” Kiplagat recalls. “My father encouraged me to run saying it would be easier to get a track scholarship and that’s how I started .”

Track scholarship

She didn’t get the track scholarship, but her efforts were not in vain as coaches noted her talent and drafted her into the Kenyan team for the 11th World Junior Championships in 2006 in Beijing.

Her fairy-tale story opened up another chapter in the Chinese capital when she settled for the silver medal at the Chaoyang Sports Centre in the 5,000 metres.

“I was happy and said to myself that I may not have secured the scholarship, but at least I discovered a talent and I was determined to go for it.”

The 22-year-old graduated to the senior ranks the following year and joined the Kenyan team, this time for the 35th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa. She was the top placed Kenyan runner at fifth place as her namesake, Lornah Kiplagat, running for her adopted nation, The Netherlands, won the gold.

After competing in Europe in 2007 and early 2008, Kiplagat, married to fellow athlete and Kenya’s men’s cross country champion, Moses Mosop, took time off to have their first baby, Asha Chelagat.

Experts argue it’s more difficult for African women to return to the highest level of sports performance after childbirth, but Kenyan stars continue to prove their theory wrong.

World beaters Catherine Ndereba, Sally Barsosio, Rose Cheruiyot and Lydia Cheromei have all grabbed global titles shortly after giving birth.

And Kiplagat followed suit by making a stunningly remarkable comeback.

The last born in a family of three ran in last December’s Tuskys Cross Country Championships in Eldoret, finishing second, before travelling to Spain where, at the 66th Cross Internacional Juan Muguerza in Elgoibar, she won the 6.624-kilometre race in 21 minutes and 39 seconds.

She went on to also clinch top title at the high-profile IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting in Seville before returning home to prepare for Kenya’s trials for last weekend’s 37th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Amman, Jordan.

Tragedy struck on the week of the trials when her brother died and she had to cut short her training.

“We buried my brother just three days before the national trials but I said to myself that I had to be strong and travel for the competition at the Ngong Racecourse,” Kiplagat says.

Kiplagat, running for the Kenya Police team, ripped apart the opposition to win the women’s eight-kilometre race and qualify for Kenya’s team to Amman.

Kiplagat had to make a sacrifice, leaving her year-old daughter with step-sister, Vigoty Chebet, as she and her husband left for Embu for a month-long training.

Kiplagat comes from a running family with her uncle, William Kiplagat, being a world-class marathon runner.

Her crowning moment came on Saturday when, after Ethiopia had floored Kenya in the two junior races, Kiplagat stole her way past long-time race leader Linet Masai to sprint to the finish line.

It was Kenya’s second ever victory in the senior women’s race, the first having come way back in 1994 when Hellen Chepng’eno, now a Kenya Prisons Service officer, struck gold in Budapest, Hungary.

With KCB offering Sh250,000 to gold medallists in Amman, the Government rewarding them with Sh300,000 and the world athletics governing body, the IAAF, handing out $30,000 (about Sh2.3 million), Kiplagat can now take care of her family and her late brother’s children.

But she’s not done yet. Her next stop is the world track and field championships to be held in Berlin in August.

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