Since 1993 when Sally Barsosio burst into the global scene as a 15-year-old to win the 10,000m bronze medal at the Stuttgart World Athletics Championships, little has been seen from the Kenya team in the event.
Barsosio went on to win the gold in Athens four years later. But since her retirement from international competition, Kenya has found it tough to race in her footsteps.
That is however about to end if the performance displayed at the national athletics championships is anything to go by.
Linet Masai, the World Cross Country silver medallist, and Florence Kiplagat, winner in Amman, Jordan, in the 8km senior women’s race, as well as Grace Momanyi will be carrying the country flag in Berlin during the world’s biggest track and field competition from next Saturday.
Masai, 19, seeks to redefine the history of 10,000m at the global level. During the Kenyan trials, she threw down the gauntlet to her senior opponents at Nyayo National Stadium but got no challenger as she won in 32:49.3 to book her ticket.
It was Lineth Chepkurui, the Kenyan captain to the World Cross, however, who showed a true fighting spirit. Despite a sore ankle, she battled to secure the second automatic slot and join Masai on the flight to Beijing. She came second in 32:57.3, ahead of Japan-based Philes Ongori (33:04.1). Chepkurui and Ongori will however not be travelling as the coach’s wild card went to Kiplagat and Momanyi.
Kenya’s prowess in the women’s races is evident. In Osaka in 2007, Janeth Jepkosgei won gold in 800m. At the Beijing Olympics, Pamela Jelimo and Nancy Jebet Lagat were crowned queens over the track in 800m and 1,500m, respectively. So were Eunice Jepkorir (3,000m steeplechase) and Jepkosgei (800m), with Vivian Cheruiyot (5,000m) bagging silver.
The country again showed class in reclaiming the senior women’s 8km title in the World Cross Country championship in Jordan in March, with Florence Kiplagat winning gold ahead of Masai.
But it is Masai who has caught the eye of many as the potential successor to Sally Barsosio.
Born on December 5, 1989 in Kapsokwony, in Mount Elgon District, Masai started running in 2005 when her elder brother, Moses Masai, won 5,000 and 10,000m races at the Africa Junior Championships. She was inspired by her brother, who is a World 10,000m bronze medallist.
The two have another sibling, Dennis, who is a runner and they all train with the PACE Sports Management training camp in Kaptagat, Eldoret.
She started running at school, though not at a high level. But it was not until 2006 that Masai started training seriously.
After three years of training, Masai has eclipsed her brothers. Her major senior breakthrough came this year when she won silver in Amman. Last year she wrote a World Junior record of 30:26.50 in 10,000m at the Beijing Olympics despite being restricted to fourth position.
It was also a new Kenyan record, toppling Edith Masai’s 30:30.26. The previous world record (30:31.55) was set by Huina Xing of China in 2003.
Masai has had a successful season so far. She has twice trounced Olympic and World 10,000m champion Tirunesh Dibaba in New York and Manchester. This has placed her among the potential medal winners in Berlin.
Since stunning the opposition on her international debut in Mombasa in 2007 to lead a Kenyan World Cross Country clean sweep, Masai has steadily developed into a force much dreaded by her Ethiopian rivals.
Masai first caught the attention of her agent and coach, Ricky Simms, after Moses spoke about her ability. Impressed, Simms sent her a track suit and training shoes and she was invited to join the PACE camp in Eldoret after winning a junior cross country race at Moi University, Chepkoilel, in October 2006.
At the camp, Masai was then given the chance to train alongside the likes of World Junior 5,000m silver medallist Vivian Cheruiyot, Barsosio and fellow junior Veronica Nyaruai at Kaptagat.
The first sign that the extra training was paying dividends came when she finished seventh in a race in Kericho. But her major breakthrough came when she finished fourth at the World Cross trials in February 2007 in Nairobi to secure her place in the Kenyan team to Mombasa.
Making the championships was a major feat for Masai, particularly in an explosive Kenyan trial, and with such a shallow training background.
“To get her onto the Kenyan team was the big challenge,” said Simms. “She did very well to finish fourth at the trials.”
In Mombasa, although Masai was a contender, the clear favourite was defending champion Pauline Korikwiang and Nyaruai.
But running in suffocating heat and humidity at low altitude, Masai would show a maturity beyond her years to lead Mercy Kosgei and Wanjiru in a Kenyan podium coup.
Masai defended her World Crosstitle in Edinburgh a year later, where the cold winter limited her to third spot. She went on to finish fourth at the World Athletics Final in Stuttgart, in 3,000 and 5,000m races.
She then won a wild card to Beijing, where she finished fourth in a race won by Tirunesh Dibaba in an Olympic record 29:54.66. Masai was timed at 30:26.50 to pen a national record.
“I felt bad for not winning at least a medal in the Olympics. My colleagues in the Kenya team dropped off far away and I was sandwiched between the Ethiopians who ran me down. I hope to recover and meet them in Berlin,” Masai said.
This year, Masai beat Dibaba at the Manchester Grand Prix and has her sights on the big prize in Germany.