Born in tea-growing Gitugi Village in Nyeri County, Africa race walk champion Samuel Gathimba had difficulty convincing his mother why he should take up athletics rather than pick tea on their farm.
But she let him go, and remains proud of the decision as, in less than a decade, Gathimba has been to the Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, World Athletics Championships and African Athletics Championships, among other major competitions.
He is currently also ranked among the world’s top 100 race walkers and is Africa’s best.
Nation Sport drove through the tea plantations and villages to his home recently where we found him dusting off his spikes for an easy morning run.
Inside his humble abode, shining medals hanging on all he four walls of his living room tell the story of sheer determination and perseverance.
The hilly cold village on the foothills of the Aberdare Ranges has had no history of athletics or any other sports.
As a matter of fact, the village has no stadium to nurture such talent.
The main economic activity here is tea farming and for the avoidance of doubt, it is where Gitugi Tea Factory, one of Nyeri’s five tea factories, is situated.
Gathimba had to map his own course to train or follow the access roads in between Njigari, Wangere and Kina villages in Othaya for his routine speed work.
Being the last born in his family of three brothers and three sisters, he was obligated to be his mother’s right hand man in various domestic chores, including feeding cattle and tending to their tea plantation.
He revealed that two of his older siblings had to drop their passion for running due to societal and family pressure.
By the time he started to train, he knew he had to alter his family’s, friends’ and the society’s mentality and write a different narrative.
“Those days, if you told your parents that you wanted to become a runner, they would look at you as if you are an alien or somebody suffering from a strange condition,” said Gathimba.
His situation was even compounded by the fact that he was training for race walking, something which had never been heard of in that village.
“Racing walk is not popular in Kenya and everyone kept asking me why I was wasting time on something that is little known. Some even thought I was crazy,” he said.
The prison warden attached at Ruiru Prison Training College started race walk while in Mumwe Primary School in Othaya, but he used to be eliminated at division level by taller and tougher boys from neighbouring schools.
At that time, neither his parents nor the games teachers really saw any potential in his disciple, but that did not dim his dream.
He later joined Gakuyu Secondary School, a day school, which was about 10 kilometres away from his home.
“My mother used to give me Sh20 as bus fare, but I used to run my way to school and treat myself with mandazi in the evening. The daily running shaped me well to be who I am today,” he recalls.
His final action while in secondary school was at the national secondary schools’ athletics competition at Kisii in 2008 where he finished third in 10km walk.
Upon finishing high school, Gathimba was greeted by usual Kenyan youth challenges including joblessness and lack of support for his talent.
“I tried many things including digging pit latrines for people, trimming fences and pruning tea leaves to sustain myself.”
“I had joined a dance group with my village mates and we used to be paid by musicians Sh500 per session after dancing for music videos. I am a very good dancer,” he says with a chuckle.
After five years of elusive casual jobs and occasional low paying dancing contracts, Gathimba decided to revive his race walk career through training.
Without any professional assistance, he penned down an intensive training programme which included hill work, speed work, homemade gym and long runs among other muscle building drills.
He had to commute to Nyeri town which is 20km away from his home to access Ruring’u Stadium for speed work and at times he used to pitch camp in Nyahururu for high altitude training.
“I used to train alone in the tea farms and at times in the Aberdare forest. There nearest stadium is in Nyeri town. Things could have been better if only I had a stadium in my village,” he says.
He emerged from the bushes in 2014 and tested his mettle during the national trials at Nyayo Stadium and that is where his star started to glitter after he finished second behind then the national champion David Kimutai in the senior category.
That performance handed him a ticket to the Africa Athletics Championships in Marrakech, Morocco, where he bagged silver in 20km walk walk behind Lebogang Shange of South Africa.
“That was the first time I competed and completed a full 20km course. It was tough and very competitive,” he recalls.
Although it was a good feeling to finally floor the seasoned Kimutai at the continental podium, Gathimba revealed that they had a strategy to get in medal bracket together or at least one of them.
“We were communicating and working together during the race, but Kimutai ran out of energy and gave me a sign to advance without him. I had to fight hard not to let him down.”
Luck came knocking on his door during the 2016 African Athletics Championships in Durban, South Africa, when he easily crossed the finish line first in one hour, 19 minutes and 24 seconds, beating the South African star Shange at his home soil.
His time was 22 seconds short of Tunisian Hatem Ghoula's championship record.
Again, in 2017, during the IAAF World Athletics Championships in London, he was overwhelmed by a bad cold a week before the competition.
“At one point I remember I collapsed in a lift as I was going for breakfast. I had never fainted in my life. It was at that moment I realised I was doing badly."
On the D-day, he lined up on the start line but he ran out of energy at the initial stages of the event. He pushed his body all the way to the finish line and was ranked 30th in a time of 1:22:00.
His portfolio got an extra page this year when he bagged a historic bronze medal for Kenya at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast in Australia in 1:19:51 in a race that was won by Olympic bronze medallist Dane Bird-Smith of Australia.
He had kept up with the leading pack until the 18th kilometre where he was left behind by Bird-Smith and England’s Tom Bosworth.
“Of all my achievements, Gold Coast remains my best. It was a tough race and I was very cautious not to repeat the Rio mistake. Whatever they did, I did too and that is how I finished third,” he said.
Unlike running, race walk is governed by strict rules where the athlete is supposed to make a progression of steps in a manner that the walker makes contact with the ground at all time as the advancing leg shall always be straightened from the moment of first contact with the ground until the vertical upright position, according to IAAF rules.
"I have learnt that there are times to go for medals and times to go for good time. If you don’t know what you are going for in a competition, it is likely you will miss all while looking for everything.”
And having mastered the tempo in his discipline, Gathimba walked into the history books again early in August during the 21st African Championships in Asaba, Nigeria, when he won one of Kenya’s 11 gold medals in the competition in 1:02:13.
“I knew I would win that race in 15th kilometre mark when I surged and the leading pack failed to respond as I expected. I decided to stick with them until the last 100 metres when I kicked."
His athletics journey has been against the grains but his sheer determination propelled him to world top race walkers and now he is eyeing the world record which stands at 1:16:36 with Yusuke Suzuki of Japan.
The 30-year-old father of one is now ranked among top 10 race walkers in the world this season among them Sergey Shirobokov of Russian (1:17:25), Japan’s Eiki Takahashi (1:17:26), Japan’s Toshikazu Yamanishi (1:17:41) and his countryman Simon Wachira with a PB of 1:19:04.
With his good form, the African champion is keen to bag more medals in the upcoming championships.
His impressive performance has made his rating go up from ‘a crazy boy who walks’ to a role model who is now championing for more sporting activities in his village.
He has embarked on an ambitious mission to form the first athletics club dubbed Gitugi Young/Junior Stars Athletes Self Help Group which has attracted about 20 budding stars.
“The mood has changed. People are now more receptive to sports having seen the fruits from one of them. The objective of our club is to nurture talents through training,” said Gathimba.
That spirit was experienced two weeks ago when his entire village feted him for bringing home gold medal from Nigeria.
During an easy day and weekends, he usually plays for Gitugi volleyball club as a centre.
His mother, Margaret Wanjiru, has conceded to the fact that sports is a lucrative venture.