With London 2012 underway, we reveal the stars flying our flag in the pursuit of Olympic gold
Her enormous athletic accomplishments make Mary Keitany a huge name in the world of marathon running. Standing at just 5’2”, Keitany is leading the women’s marathon team to London 2012 that is fully expected to deliver Kenya’s first ever gold medal in the event. Keitany holds the world record in the women’s half marathon, 10 miles, 20km, and 25km. The twice London Marathon winner is not only currently the fastest woman in Kenya but also the third fastest ever woman in the event worldwide. Keitany truly appears to be on a winning streak, and running with her teammates Edna Kiplagat and Priscah Jeptoo (who came second and third in this year’s London Marathon), the question should be not ‘if’ but rather ‘how many’ medals they will be bringing home from London.
Corporal Benson Gicharu
With his piercing eyes and acute focus, you just have to believe Benson Gicharu when he proclaims that “nothing can distract me from achieving my goal.” Gicharu’s reason for getting into boxing had to do with what he describes as ‘the hood’, a ghetto called Fuata Nyayo in the South B area of Nairobi where his life began and where, he says, it was all too easy for youngsters to get into bad ways. Now, the undefeated flyweight champion of Kenya since 2008 is categorical that the time spent at the very first gym when he was just a boy at Kayole Primary School changed his life. “I became disciplined and started performing well in school,” says Kenya’s single male boxing participant in the 2012 London Olympics. Medals adorn the wall of the Commonwealth Games silver medallist’s living room. His recent promotion to the rank of Corporal in the Kenya Police Service inspired him to excel in the African Olympic qualification tournament in Morocco in May 2012, where he won silver. When he’s not training with the Kenya Police team in Mathare or running long distances in Karura Forest, the 27-year-old champion unwinds by listening to reggae or watching action and conspiracy movies – but just for a short while, then its back to the gym. Watch out too for Elizabeth Andiego, who will be first woman boxer to represent Kenya in the Olympics at London 2012.
Athletics, 800m and 4x400m relay
In Kiswahili, Rudisha means ‘bring it back’ – precisely what Kenya hopes David Rudisha will be doing when it comes to a gold medal at London 2012. And who better to accomplish this than the 800m world champion, who won the Paris Diamond League 800m with the seventh fastest time ever just a month before the Olympics? It is quite possible that some had never heard of Rudisha before 2010, but he has become a household name since breaking the 800m world record twice within a single week. Forty-four years after his father, Daniel, brought home silver as part of the Kenyan 4x400m relay team in the 1968 Mexico City games, the 6’3” David Rudisha stands a great chance of bringing back the family’s second Olympic medal from the same event, this time in London.
Julius Kiplagat Yego
Julius Yego has a knack for making things work out, and this year he will be making history: he will be the first Kenyan javelin thrower ever to compete at the Olympic Games. At the age of 23, our javelin champion has every reason to be proud. In 2011 he became the first Kenyan to win the javelin title at the All-Africa Games – and all without having a throwing coach. Yet he remains approachable and down-to-earth. Why javelin, we ask him, when most of his contemporaries have gone the track and field route? “My love for javelin is inborn,” he responds matter-of-factly, a charming smile lingering at the corners of his mouth. Javelin has been a lifelong passion, developing in primary school, persisting through high school, when he competed in the regional championships, and culminating in his recent three-month training camp in Finland, where he finally got a coach. Yego, who taught himself his throwing technique by watching YouTube videos at the beginning of his career, points out that training for the javelin requires more than throwing technique; overall fitness is essential. In preparation for London, he combines gym work with speed running and endurance training, which accounts for his astounding physical form.
Only one man has ever run the 3,000m steeplechase faster than Brimin Kipruto, and that only by a fraction of a second. Kipruto’s time of 7:53:64 in July 2011 stands second only to the 7:53:63 run by Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar (formerly Stephen Cherono of Kenya) in September 2004. Brimin’s silver at the age of 19 at the 2004 Athens Olympics, gold at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, and gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics all came before this record time. It appears he is getting better with age! Kipruto’s given name is actually Firmin, but he says it was mistakenly transcribed by a clerk when he was applying for a birth certificate, and he has been identified officially as ‘Brimin’ever since.
Swimming 100m butterfly
Swimming 50m & 100m freestyle
Jason and David Dunford have both Kenya and sport in their blood. “We grew up playing lots of sports together,” says David. In rugby they played scrum half and fly half; in cricket they fielded at 1st and 2nd slip, and both led off and anchored relays. Asked whether they both speak Kiswahili fluently, Jason responds: “Bila shaka; kwani unadhani kwamba sisi si wazalendo?” (Of course; we are patriots).
The brothers have always trained together – in Kenya, in the UK, in the US, and most recently in Italy ahead of the 2012 London Olympics. “Our older brother Robert forged the path for everything we did growing up. All three of us remain fierce competitors with each other but have maintained very close relationships,” David says.
Jason, who holds the All-Africa Games swimming record in the 100m butterfly, attributes his success to encouraging and enabling parents, great coaches and an incredible drive and determination to represent Kenya in the Olympics. The first Kenyan swimmer ever to qualify for the Olympics (Beijing 2008), Jason’s training for London 2012 involves spending up to 25 hours in the water and four to five hours in the weights room each week.
David, who clinched the gold medal in the 100m freestyle at the All-Africa Games in Maputo in 2011, loves all water sports. Among his favourite memories are the times he has spent surfing the waves of the Indian Ocean with his family. “I also love watching cricket and rugby, and one of the most special and inspirational moments in my sporting upbringing was when I watched Kenya beat Sri Lanka in Nairobi during the 2003 World Cup. Collins Obuya, I will never forget your 5/24!” he says.
The second-fastest marathoner in the world is a soft-spoken man with an outstanding performance record. When Kipsang won the London Marathon more than two minutes ahead of the second place finisher in April 2012, he became one of only two men ever to have finished three marathons in less than 2 hours, 5 minutes. It’s hard to believe that Kipsang ran his debut marathon as recently as 2010, at the age of 28, having previously focused on shorter distances ranging from 10,000m to 30,000m. Kipsang finished third in his first event in Paris, and since then he has been content with nothing but first place: twice in Frankfurt, once in Otsu, Japan, and in London. Kipsang seems to have found the place he likes to be – well ahead of the pack.
Mary Nakhumicha Zakayo
Javelin, discus and shot put
Mary Nakhumicha was a nine-year-old at Joyland Special School in Kisumu when she first held a javelin. It was the beginning of a lifelong love. A childhood bout of polio had resulted in disability in her right leg, but Mary knew even at that age that she would achieve great things in sport. She was doing so well that when her teacher paid her parents a visit saying, “I want to coach this pupil,” they agreed at once.
The rest of her story is one of mind over matter: a difficult operation in her first year of high school immobilised her and caused her to drop out of education, and she struggled with the lack of training facilities and coaches to teach her new techniques. A lesser person might have given up, but not Mary. Eleven gold, ten silver and nine bronze medals later – the first won at the age of ten – she is a force to be reckoned with in the javelin, discus and shot put. In recognition of her achievements, she has dined with the President and been honoured with an Order of the Grand Warrior award. The International Paralympics Committee Ambassador, who has a penchant for travel, crochet and wheelchair basketball, is outspoken about the plight of people with disabilities in Kenya and demands they be accorded the opportunity to get an education, to travel and to be employed like everyone else.
Pamela Jelimo was only 18 years old when she became the first Kenyan woman to win an Olympic gold medal – in the 800m at Beijing 2008. But no one could say her win was unexpected. The same year, she had set a new Junior world record, a new African record and a new Kenyan record in the event. It seemed the 800m women’s race had found the champion it had been missing. After the Olympics, and before returning home, Jelimo became the first Kenyan to win the Golden League jackpot of $1,000,000. In September 2008, on her return to Kenya after winning the Olympics, a street in Kapsabet Town was named in her honour. Unable to compete for the next three years due to injury, Jelimo made a stunning comeback, becoming the first Kenyan woman to win an indoor athletics gold medal in the world championships in Istanbul, then beating South Africa’s Caster Semenya in Ostrava in May this year. Is she peaking at just the right time?
Paralympic Games: marathon and 5,000m
Henry Wanyoike has the look of a man who has achieved his dreams: so full of life, he virtually exudes light. “When I was a young boy, my dream was to be a champion in athletics,” he says. That dream seemed far out of reach when he woke up blind one morning at the age of 21. Despite this, he worked at and succeeded in becoming a champion in events ranging from the 1,500 metres to the marathon. His marathon time still stands as the best ever worldwide for blind runners. There’s something else that lights up his face: his work at the Henry Wanyoike Foundation, with its slogan “I have lost my sight but I haven’t lost my vision”, which helps many disadvantaged Kenyans achieve their own vision. At the London Paralympic Games, you won’t miss him: he’ll be the one up front carrying Kenya’s flag.
When Vivian Cheruiyot was named Laureus Sportswoman of the Year 2012, it was abundantly clear that she deserved it. For Cheruiyot, 2011 was an amazing year, winning double gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m at the Athletics World Championships in Daegu – a feat only accomplished once before – and that after winning the World Cross Country title earlier in the year and the 5,000m Diamond Race Trophy in the Samsung Diamond League competition. Now doubling up to compete in both the 5,000m and 10,000m races at London 2012, she has Kenya’s collective heart thumping in anticipation of a double win. Cheruiyot’s beaming smile as she crosses the finish line is legendary. Food for thought: does the Laureus Sportswoman smile because she wins or does she win because she smiles?