- Category: International Sports
- Published Date
- Written by Reuters
Brother Colm Oâ€™Connell, an Irish missionary who started the first athletics training camp in the Kenyan highlands, never imagined a small village in the Great Rift Valley would become a production line of running talent.
Oâ€™Connell, coach to 800 metres world record holder David Rudisha, has trained 25 world champions and four Olympic gold medallists during his 36 years in Iten, a small village 8 000 feet above sea level in western Kenyaâ€™s Rift Valley.
The 63-year-oldâ€™s idea to create Itenâ€™s first training camp in 1989 is now viewed as the catalyst that transformed the village into a global athletics hub.
"When I came, there were no athletes training around the road. There were no camps. There were no other coaches. There was nothing, just a school where I was a teacher and I coached the students," Oâ€™Connell told Reuters at his humble home within the grounds of St Patrickâ€™s High School for boys.
Brimin Kipruto, the Beijing Games winner in the 3 000 metres steeplechase, is the most recent Olympic champion from Oâ€™Connellâ€™s youth camp. Favourites to win maiden golds in London are marathon runner Edna Kiplagat and womenâ€™s 5 000 and 10 000 metres world champion Vivian Cheruiyot.
Over the past few years Kenyan runners have enjoyed unprecedented levels of success and elite athletes from all over the world travel to Iten to train with Kenyan champions in the hope some of the magic will rub off on them.
Ahead of the London Games, UK Athletics set up a training camp in Iten and British athletes, including marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe and 5 000 metres world champion Mo Farah could be seen running up and down Rift Valleyâ€™s gentle hills where cows graze grass by the side of dusty red roads.
But Oâ€™Connell said the praise coming his way for Itenâ€™s transformation is not fair, modestly pointing out that he never intended to become a running coach when he arrived in the region.
"I just happen to be in an area where athletics was the talent. I happen to be in a sport which is not very expensive; you donâ€™t need anything to be a runner. Even as young kids they run barefoot, you do not even need a pair of shoes," he said.
As teenage boys in grey jumpers and green blazers spill out of St Patrickâ€™s red-bricked classrooms, Oâ€™Connell pointed out that one of them could be a future star.
"There is an element of trial and error. Do not think that everybody I take is a David Rudisha. You take 20 and you get one (champion)," he said.
For St Patrickâ€™s students, the reminder of Oâ€™Connellâ€™s success is omnipresent.
The school pays homage to pupils who come through the system and go on to win a world championship title by planting a tree in their honour. The joke in Iten is that St Patrickâ€™s grounds will soon become a forest as future generations etch their name in the schoolâ€™s folklore."â€”Reuters