The crowning moment for every teacher is when his students graduate with top grades.
Similarly, the crowning moment for an athletics coach is when athletes under him take to podium to receive medals.
And there can be no bigger moment for a coach whose athletes hold all the world, continental and local titles in a particular specialty.
It is a special feeling for Rongai Athletics Club coach Bernard Ouma whose athletes hold World, Continental Cup, Commonwealth, Africa, World Under-20, World Under-18, Africa Under-20, Africa Under-18 and the national 1,500 metres titles.
For coach Ouma, Thursday could usher in more of the great moments when he sends “Team Cheruiyot” to the battle field against “Team Ingebrigtsen” in virtual Maurie Plant Memorial Race.
RACING OVER 2,000M
“Team Cheruiyot” will feature reigning world 1,500m champion Timothy Cheruiyot, the 2017 World Championships 1,500m gold medalist Elijah Manang’oi who is also the reigning Commonwealth and Continental champion over the distance, Africa Under-18 1,500m champion Vincent Keter, Edwin Melly, and Timothy Sein.
Racing over 2,000m, “Team Ingebrigtsen,” made up of the world-famous Ingebrigtsen brothers Jakob, Henrik and Filip from Norway, will compete in the race at the Bislett Stadium in Oslo, while “Team Cheruiyot” will run at the Nyayo National Stadium in Nairobi.
Jakob, the reigning European 1,500m and 5,000m champion, Henrik and Filip are currently training in Norway and will be joined by two other athletes to make a team of five.
The inaugural Maurie Plant Race will be held in memory of Maurie Plant, one of the most significant figures in Australian and world athletics who died in January. It will be one of the races on the cards during the “Impossible Games.”
With Oslo leg of the Diamond League Series that usually takes place on June 11 now cancelled owing to Covid-19 pandemic, and with the Ingebrigtsens in great form, the managers of Oslo city organised “Impossible Games” to fill in.
But why Rongai Athletics Club and “Team Cheruiyot?” According to Ouma, there has been a sense of rivalry between the Ingebrigtsens and Manang’oi brothers Elijah and George, and now Cheruiyot.
At the 2017 London World Championships, Elijah and Cheruiyot teamed up to claim gold and silver respectively in the 1,500m final with Filip taking home the bronze.
At the 2018 World Under-20 Championships, George charged from behind to beat Jakob to victory in men’s 1,500m final. Jakob settled for silver.
After going on a roller-coaster to win Commonwealth and Africa 1,500m titles, Elijah ended the 2018 season with Continental Cup victory, beating Marcin Lewandowski from Poland and Jakob in that order.
Come the 2019 Doha World Championships, the imperious Cheruiyot was in a class of his own, breaking into a solo run in a gun-to-tape performance to win the 1,500m final in 3 minutes, 29.26 seconds at the imposing Khalifa Stadium. Algerian Taoufik Makhloufi (3:31.38) and Lewandowski (3:31.46) went home with silver and bronze respectively as Jakob wound up fourth in 3:31.70.
‘WE OWE OUR FANS’
“I was so shocked that Jakob didn’t get a medal. Maybe it’s the technical errors they committed that worked in our advantage. Doubling up in the 1,500m and 5,000m was perhaps Jakob’s main undoing,” says Ouma.
Ouma says his team initially had reservations when they were approached to take part in the race since they were not training at the time.
Ouma acknowledges that “Team Ingebrigtsen” has perhaps not been affected by the lockdown occasioned by Covid-19 pandemic as “Team Cheruiyot” has been.
“They have been training a lot, and that was clear when Jakob won a 5km Road Race in an impressive time of 13:28 in Norway. That is pretty fast. It shows he is in great shape,” explains Ouma, adding that “Team Ingebrigtsen” will be seeking to lower the European record over 2,000m of 4:51.39 that is currently held by Steve Cram. Cram will commentate during the race.
“We realised it wasn’t about training per se, and we accepted the challenge.
“We also wanted to send a message out to the world that we are alive, and that we owe our fans something,” says Ouma, adding that running at an altitude of 25m is bound to give “Team Ingebrigtsen” some competitive advantage to run as fast as they can.
“It won’t be easy but we are not complaining about the little time we have been in training,” says Ouma, who reckons that resuming track sessions at the Nyayo National Stadium last week made them feel like coming out of a cage.
“I wouldn’t say it has been difficult since everyone has faced similar conditions. It is all about who adapts to the conditions well and the fast to make good use of the available resources,” says Ouma.
“But majority of athletes are bound to face challenges adjusting mentally since they were used to some routine.”
The 45-year-old Ouma has said the resumption of the Diamond League Series, and inaugural World Athletics Continental Tour that have been rescheduled to start from August is meant to salvage the world’s athletics season after the devastating effects of Covid-19 pandemic.
“Those training well now will run well at that time,” Ouma, clearly a man on a mission, says.
Ouma is out to do things differently. First, he is out to demystify the narrative that athletics coaches only dangle stop watches and whistles around their necks as they shout instructions and invectives at athletes during training.
He reckons that everyone has his approach to coaching. “Specific situations introduce specific demands. But again we can’t rate our students on a standard scale since there are a lot of unique situations. There are some who are learned, having good to school, while others are purely talented,” explains the soft-spoken Ouma.
“Then how do you generalise to send a message across? You may want to be diplomatic, and a times, you want to go to the extreme just to pass the message depending on the person you are dealing with.”
Ouma, a former sprinter and an international karateka, decided to explore a different approach to coaching.
“I want to change the stereotype that coaches just hold whistles and watches while issuing directives,” Ouma says. “I want people to know there is that scientific side of things that can help revolutionalise coaching in athletics and any other sports.”
Ouma, who formed Rongai Athletics Club in 2006 upon completing his university studies, says he spends most of his time researching and seeking advanced knowledge from higher learning institutions on what he can do so as to improve not only the standards of coaching but also the athletes.
“My training involves experiments, which may backfire or support my hypothesis. That helps me know what to do next. I may be talented or not,” explains Ouma, who studied Automotive Engineering at the University of Nairobi. He is known for having worked with researchers from Osaka University to study the muscular composition of his athletes.
Ouma is grateful to Athletics Kenya which paid for his International Olympic Committee Science Coaching course in 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.
“I believe this is what really opened my eyes on the dynamism of coaching. It helped me lay the good groundwork for the organised and professional set-up at Rongai,” says Ouma, adding that coaching has been a calling for him. “I didn’t expect to be a technical person but that drive to help the less fortunate and to help talent grow has taken me places.”
Ouma is quick to add that he is not doing coaching as a business but to help others, saying he’s lucky to have handled some of the most disciplined and focused athletes.
Ouma worked part-time in the motor vehicle industry to raise money for his university studies while at the same time dedicating his time to karate and athletics. He specialized in the sprints (100m, 200m and 400m).
He sustained an injury that kept him away from the track. Shortly, his training group started to disintegrate owing to lack of a coach.
The athletes approached Ouma to step in, his language proficiency and knowledge endearing him to many. Ouma then accepted the challenge to later form Rongai Athletics Club in 2006.
The rest, as they say, is history.