She almost considered quitting track running after what she describes as the “worst moments” of her athletics career, perennially failing to clinch the big medals on the global stage.
But her explosive performance at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, where she claimed both the 5,000m and 10,000m titles, launched Vivian “Pocket Rocket” Cheruiyot to stardom.
That year, the diminutive athlete was declared the Kenyan Sports Personality of the Year.
Cheruiyot then went into the 2012 London Olympics a clear favourite, especially in the 5,000m, but the star, arguably the most decorated female athlete in Kenya’s history, would settle for silver in the 5,000m and bronze in the 10,000.
Ethiopian Meseret Defar won the 5,000m gold, her second after winning the 2004 Athens title, while compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba claimed gold in 10,000m, also her second after Beijing 2008.
'A TRICK ON ME'
Reflecting in an interview with Sunday Nation Sport’s Big Interview last Friday, Cheruiyot said she could not comprehend what happened in the 5,000m final in London as she was in great shape.
“My focus was on Dibaba, whom I thought had a better kick than Defar, and I was surprised when Defar passed me during the race,” said Cheruiyot.
“That is why I didn’t react when Defar went ahead, leaving Dibaba behind. It was perhaps a trick on me.”
Defar went on to win after Cheruiyot’s kick fell short as Dibaba settled for bronze.
A frustrated and dejected Cheruiyot was inconsolable.
“I cried for almost two weeks and I even thought of leaving track to road racing… I was in my best form ever and I failed to understand why,” said Cheruiyot, 33, as she recounted her athletics journey after being crowned 2016 Kenyan Sports Personality of the Year at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre during last Thursday’s Safaricom Sports Personality of the Year Awards.
Cheruiyot’s coach and husband Kiplagat Kurui and manager Ricky Simms were at hand to encourage and support the distance running star, convincing her that all was not lost.
“I had to tell myself that there is always next time,” said Cheruiyot, who turned her silver in 10,000m at the Rio Olympic Games to gold in the 5,000m.
Not only did Cheruiyot settle for the Rio silver in a new national record time of 29 minutes, 32.53 seconds, but she also became the first Kenyan woman to win the Olympic 5,000m title in a new Olympic record time of 14:26.17.
“That was the best moment of my athletics career so far, that I finally got what was missing in my trophy cabinet since I made my debut at the Olympics in 2000."
“I had enjoyed most of the moments on track but winning that coveted gold shall forever be engraved in my heart.”
Nobody had given Kenyans a chance in the 5,000m, especially after in-form Almaz Ayana won the 10,000m in a new world record time of 29:17.45, breaking the previous mark of 29:31.78 by China’s Wang Junxia that had stood for 24 years.
“One person who had the heart of a lioness is (silver medallist Hellen) Obiri, who instilled bravery in us and it worked.”
Cheruiyot and Obiri would assist each other as they all overtook Ayana for a 1-2 finish.
“I had faced her compatriots Dibaba and Meseret, but Ayana was just too strong. I just had to look around just to confirm after I had crossed the line.”
Cheruiyot has since moved on and quit track, focusing on her marathon debut in London on April 23.
“I want to break the world marathon record one day before I retire. Another Olympic gold in the marathon should crown it all, God willing.”
Even though it will be treacherous since training sessions will be longer, Cheruiyot hopes that the transition will be smooth as she aims to emulate Olympic marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge, the former world 5,000m champion who is now among the world’s most sought-after marathon runners.
“Kipchoge never lost hope even after failing to win an Olympic gold in the 5,000m. His Rio marathon victory is great motivation.”
Inspired by the likes of former world 10,000m champion Sally Barsosio and two-time world marathon champion Catherine Ndereba, Cheruiyot took up athletics while at Chemwabul Primary School in Elgeyo-Marakwet County.
She credits her success to Kurui, Simms and her previous coach David Kimaiyo, who discovered her talent at Chemwabul.
Maiyo took her under his care, entering her in the national trials for the 1997 World Cross Country Championships.
“My parents have also been a source of inspiration, having provided all that I need for competitions.”
But Cheruiyot is worried that few athletes are coming through the ranks and wants the government and Athletics Kenya to put up training camps across the country to tap talent.
“We have the same athletes competing in 10,000m with no new ones. We need to go beyond Iten and Eldoret for talent search.”
Cheruiyot advises upcoming athletes to embrace track first before moving to road running as most athletes who went straight to road races “haven’t lasted for long.”
“They should also desist from taking short-cuts by using illegal drugs. I’m a clear manifestation on how staying clean and natural can do to an athlete.”
Cheruiyot also plans to set up a training camp where she will help groom young athletes.
Her husband Kurui, who took over as coach in 2006, describes her as “a wonderful athlete and wife.”
“She has been a good student, listener and never complains on something that she knows will be good for her,” he says.
“The chemistry between me and Cheruiyot as coach and athlete has really helped us in training."
“We see ourselves as partners in athletics as we aspire to achieve something good,” says Kurui, who believes Cheruiyot’s transition to the marathon will succeed.
The couple, who have a son, Allan, born in 2013, live in Kaptagat and have interests in real estate, farming and transport businesses in Eldoret and Nairobi.