Another championship. Another fairy tale story. Another YouTube athlete…
On Thursday night, 18-year-old Vanice Kerubo Nyagisera caused a major upset when she became Kenya’s first female champion at a major championship in the 400 metres hurdles by striking gold in Rabat.
On the final day of the athletics programme of the African Championships at the Moulay Abdellah Sports Complex, the baby-faced girl from Kisii County stunned all by braving injury to clock 56.97 seconds, winning gold for Kenya.
The victory was a fitting reward for hard work, discipline and sacrifice for the second born in a family of three girls who lacks basic training facilities back home, making hurdles out of sticks to train over 50 metres on her family farm in Nyagisai, near Marani in Kitutu Chache, Kisii County.
Principal at Mogonga
“I’m very happy. I still can’t believe it is me who did that… I just can’t believe whether it’s me or not,” she told me in a telephone interview from Rabat where she shares a room with 4x100m relay bronze medallist Millicent Ndoro at the Team Kenya accommodation.
Kerubo’s is a take of persistence, as she has been left out of Kenya’s age-group teams multiple times just because officials felt that Kenya can’t hack it in the women’s hurdles.
But her principal at Mogonga Secondary School, Haron Onchonga, kept on urging her not to give up.
The exploits of fellow sprinter Mary Moraa, also an alumna of Mogonga, encouraged the 18-year-old Moraa to hang in there.
Incidentally, she started off as a high jumper and would also play football.
“I actually started running the 400m hurdles last year. Previously, I ran more of the 100m hurdles right from primary school at Nyagisai Primary School,” she explains.
“I always went to the national primary school championships for the high jump in Embu and Mombasa and even finished second once.”
“But this year, I decided the 400m hurdles is my race.”
Kerubo won last month’s trials for the African Games in Nairobi, clocking 59.63 to floor the Kenya Defence Forces pair of Jane Chege (59.63) and Brenda Murimi (60.39).
Again, at the National Championships weeks later at the Nyayo National Stadium, Kerubo won in 57.85 with Chege (1:00.10) second and Jerioth Gathogo (1:00.90), also of KDF, third.
“I decided to specialize in one event— the 400m hurdles — because I have the speed as I have been competing in the relays, and I can also jump, thanks to my experience in the high jump,” she explains. And she sees lots of room for improvement.
“I changed from the 100m hurdles to 400m hurdles basically because my reaction at the start isn’t good, but I know I have the speed. I just need to work on my reaction and technique over the hurdles now.”
Her time in Rabat on Friday is just 0.97 seconds outside the qualifying time for the IAAF World Championships that start on September 28 in Doha.
She now just needs to try and run within the required time between now and midnight on September 6 to earn her ticket to the big stage in Doha. That’s if selectors give her the nod.
“It’s unfortunate that selectors have left her out of many junior championships. Not just once, but three or four times,” her mentor Onchonga, the Mogonga Secondary School principal, chips in.
Kerubo’s elder sister, Miriam Kerubo, is married, and her younger sibling, Faith Mokeira, a Class Six pupil at Nyagisera Primary School, is also taking after the latest Kenyan sensation, competing in the 100m and 200m races.
“She is good. She also competes in the high jump and has made it to county level,” Kerubo tells me.
Proud moments indeed for their parents, Stephen Nyagisera and Gladys Moraa.
She is grateful for their support and for Onchonga’s mentorship.
“I’d like to say, principal, thank you very much for your support.
“You have made sure the training conditions are good and you have ensured that I have the hurdles for training, the physiotherapist and all assistance we needed as athletes.”
Just like former javelin world champion Julius Yego did before striking gold at the 2011 African Games in Maputo – a title he retained in Rabat on Friday – Kerubo has been looking for training tips and inspiration on YouTube.
“I watch a lot of races and training on YouTube.
“I admire athletes like Dalilah Muhammad and I would like to face her at the World Championships in Doha so that she pushes me to a better performance,” Kerubo explains.
At the US National Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, early last month, Muhammad shattered the world record in the 400m hurdles, clocking 52.20 seconds.
Prior to Kerubo’s achievement, legendary Rose Tata came close to glory in the women’s race, winning silver at the home All African Games in Nairobi in 1987 in 55.94.
She also won silver and bronze at the African Championships in Dakar, 1979 (59.85) and Cairo, 1982 (60.9), respectively.
The Kenyan record stands at 55.84, held by Francesca Koki who was, however, unceremoniously banned in 2016 for using performance-enhancing substances.
“She (Kerubo) is the one I’m expecting to beat my record,” Tata said yesterday, delighted at Kerubo’s performance.
“What I can request Athletics Kenya is that they must take care of coaches and also consider gender, so that when seven coaches are picked, at least two are women.
“Also, national teams should have specialized coaches for the sprints, middle and long distance, jumps and throws – it doesn’t help having one coach handling all these different disciplines.”
Only two African women have won Olympic or world titles in the 400m hurdles.
Morocco’s Nezha Bidouane won the world title twice, in 1987 in Athens (52.97 Africa record) and in 2001 in Edmonton (53.34).
Another Moroccan, Nawal El Moutawakel won the Olympic gold in 1984 in Los Angeles (54.61).
Whether “baby-faced assassin” Kerubo can make it a trio of African global champions will depend on the technical support and exposure she received from Athletics Kenya’s technical team and her family support base.
For she has indicated beyond any reasonable doubt that she’s the next big thing on the Kenyan track.
On Friday night, she was stretchered off the track, but yesterday, she assured that all was well, and she was just taking precautions.
“After the heats, I felt a strain on my right leg muscle and underwent physiotherapy, and that’s why I ran with a tape.
“I wasn’t talking any chances and didn’t want to aggravate the injury that’s why I took it easy and rode off on a stretcher,” she explained.
Kerubo sees world 5,000m champion Hellen Obiri as her role model on the track.
“Because she works very hard in every race that she enters,” explains Kerubo. “And also because she comes from my home in Kisii,” she quickly adds with a cheeky chuckle.
Kerubo won her heat in Rabat in 57.87 before taking gold in 56.95, relegating Morocco’s Lamia Lhabz (56.97) and Nigeria’s Abisiamo Akpan (personal best 57.66) to the smaller medals.
The 18-year-old Kenyan sensation won’t have much time to celebrate when Team Kenya returns home on Tuesday.
She needs to figure out how she can get that 0.97 seconds off her personal best time to get that ticket to Doha, and a possible meeting with world record holder Muhammad.