When he won the Chicago Marathon in October after a frustrating year of injury and illness, Sammy Wanjiru seemed relieved and upbeat.
Finally, he said, he could think about chasing the world record held by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia.
“The body is coming,” Wanjiru said.
He was the reigning Olympic champion. Hard as it was to believe in a country of great distance runners, Wanjiru was the only man from Kenya ever to have won a gold medal in the marathon.
He was one of the favourites to win again next year at the London Games. And then came the horrific news on Sunday night. At 24, Wanjiru was dead.
Federico Rosa, Wanjiru’s manager, said his client was “very relaxed and happy” when he spoke with him over the weekend before the tragedy unfolded.
“We don’t know all the circumstances,” he said. “His death is a tragedy,” he added. Rosa said that he had met Wanjiru and his wife 10 days ago and “everything was quite normal.” Wanjiru was catapulted to stardom when he became Kenya’s first Olympic marathon champion at the Beijing Games in 2008, aged just 21.
World marathon majors
He went on to dominate the distance over the preceding two years as he was crowned men’s champion in the 2009 and 2010 world marathon majors series.
“Besides a big talent, champions have what I could call an arrogance. They know they are stronger than the others. He was so focused on winning, not to be famous or get a lot of money, but just to show that he was the best.”
He was planning to run in Chicago or New York in the fall as he prepared for the London Olympics in the summer of 2012, Rosa said.
“He wanted to show the world who is Sammy Wanjiru,” Rosa said. “The world has lost it’s greatest runner,” said Rosa.
Mary Wittenberg, director of the New York City Marathon, who in November presented Wanjiru with the Sh42 million ($500,000) bounty for clinching the World marathon Majors title, said in a statement: “It is with shock and great sadness that we mourn the loss of one of our sport’s greatest and brightest stars.
“Sammy was a megastar in a sport where it’s hard to rise above the deep and broad talent. Sammy’s talent was undeniable, combined with a huge heart, drive and a fearless nature. He flew through heat and humidity in Beijing like they were inch high hurdles.
“The heart he showed in Chicago last year when he would not fade from (Tsegaye) Kebede’s side surge after surge – when Sammy was not in top shape – showed – well beyond the talent - that he had a heart and drive every bit as big.
“I will remember most driving our New York city marathon course with Sammy in the lead vehicle. While other athletes have focused on the race and the other runners, Sammy looked forward almost the entire way – waving and smiling to crowds – mile after mile. A people person and huge engaging smile to match. We’ll miss his confidence, bravado, guts and heart. The sport is down a game changing megastar today. How very sad for all.”
London marathon race director David Bedford, said in a world full of shocks, for marathon running this has to be the most shocking.
“A great champion and great human being who will be massively missed by the sport for years to come.”