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Bring It On, Say The Kenyans!

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Bring It On, Say The Kenyans!

With the London 2012 Olympics a month away, global excitement is in overdrive. And if the Kenyan women long distance runners’ showing at the London Marathon last month – winning the first five places – is a yardstick, the world is in for a treat. However, there is one other Kenyan to look out for – Vivian Jepkemoi Cheruiyot. As Clayton Goodwin reports, she is dynamite.

HAS ANYONE HAD A MORE APPROpriate name? “Vivian” (sometimes spelled “Vivien”) comes from a Latin word meaning “lively”. It is also the name of an enchantress in the legend of King Arthur who gets the better of the magician Merlin and while the knights and kings are laying about each other with their swords and spears in battle, she manages to snatch the prize – the magic sword Excalibur.

So it has been with Vivian Jepkemoi Cheruiyot, who was born on 11 September 1983 near Keiyo in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province. This diminutive woman has set a very lively pace around the tracks of the world and while the Ethiopians, who have dominated the longer distances for some decades, have been tied up with their own rivalries for supremacy, she has nipped in to snatch the prize.

“I started running because of a sports day at school,” she told an interviewer. “I ran, I was good at it, and really enjoyed it.” She confided, too, that her early track heroine was Sally Barsosio, the 10,000 metres world champion in 1997.

And quite a prize it is because Vivian Cheruiyot is the 2012 Laureus Female Athlete of the Year. It is impossible to get any higher recognition. Every time that one looked at the track last year, either in the arena itself or on the television screen, it seemed that Cheruiyot was setting the pace, with her rivals, including many well-known names, stretched out behind her. Cheruiyot won so many races, including the gold medal in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in the IAAF World Championships at Daegu, Korea.

Even when she didn’t take an early lead, her famed “killer kick” to the finish, which she has described as being “natural” but sharpened by “speed-work sessions on the track”, was sufficient to demolish the opposition.

Yes, 2011 was exceptional by any standards. It started with Cheruiyot cruising past Linet Masai on the last lap to win the IAAF World Cross Country Championship at Punta Umbria. She was also successful in the IAAF Diamond League series of meetings in which she attained victories at Stockholm, Eugene (USA), Shanghai, and Zurich.

I was privileged to watch the latter from high in the press stands at the Letzigrund Stadium. The meeting came immediately after the World Championships when some of the winners there took the opportunity to rest from competition. Not so for the double victor.

Cheruiyot won the 5,000 metres after leading her Kenyan compatriots, including Sally Kipyego, Linet Masai, and Sylvia Kibet to the first five positions even though Meselech Melkamu and Sentayehu Ejigu presented a very strong Ethiopian challenge.    

Although her recent breakthrough has been spectacular, Cheruiyot has been around for some time, working her way through the ranks. She competed in her first Olympic Games at Sydney in 2000 – reaching the 5,000 metres final. That had come on the back of her winning the junior IAAF World Cross Country Championships at Vilamoura after achieving the silver medal in the same event at Belfast the previous year. Then she disappeared from the scene for several years while completing her studies.

Her comeback to the “big time” started with her taking the silver medal behind Meseret Defar at the IAAF World Championships at Osaka in 2007, a season which she closed by winning gold in the IAAF World Athletics Final at Stuttgart, Germany.

The next year, Cheruiyot was fifth in the 5,000 metres at the Beijing Olympic Games. Her big chance came in 2009 which she started by breaking the Kenyan 3,000 metres indoor record with 8:30.53 at Birmingham, UK.

When favourite Tirunesh Dibaba pulled out of the IAAF World Championships in Berlin with injury, Cheruiyot seized her chance to win the 5,000 metres in 14:53.33.

She began 2010 with a silver medal in the 3,000 metres in IAAF World Indoor Championships at Doha – finishing behind Defar again – but then at last she turned the tables on the Ethiopian in the 5,000 metres of the African Championships in Nairobi.

In a truly golden summer, Cheruiyot won gold medals in the Commonwealth Games at New Delhi and – for Africa – in the IAAF Continental Cup at Split in Croatia and was elected the inaugural IAAF Diamond League Trophy winner for achieving most points overall in that competition.

Cheruiyot relaxes from the track by “reading novels, watching football, and visiting friends” and, we presume, still sticks to her training diet of “lots of vegetables, chicken, milk, tea, and ugali (cornmeal usually made into a dumpling)”.

Kenyans arise

There were two stunning Kenyan victories within a few minutes of each other in the IAAF World Indoor Championships at Istanbul earlier this year. One was a complete surprise achieved by a fast-rising star and the other by a former similarly fast-risen star whose career had seemed to be behind her – both athletes were born within eight days of each other in December 1989.

The Ethiopian champion, Mesmeret Defar, was in such command of the 3,000 metres at Istanbul that her fifth straight victory in the event seemed to be hers for the asking. Besides, if anybody dared to put in a late challenge, Defar had the most famous finishing sprint in the business.

Suddenly the Kenyan rising star, Hellen Obiri, her country’s 1,500 metres champion, flew from seemingly nowhere to crash over the line in 8:37.16, fractionally ahead of her rival. The result was so surprising because Defar had beaten her out of sight in the international meeting at Birmingham just a couple of weeks earlier.

Obiri explained: “I know that Defar has a strong kick in the last 200 metres; that’s why I made my move earlier. In 2011, I didn’t perform well. I hope 2012 will be my year. I hope to win something in the 1,500 metres in the Olympic Games”.

Almost immediately afterwards, another Kenyan (this time an old champion making a comeback), Pamela Jelimo, romped home to win the 800 metres in 1:58.83. She has seen it all before and was delighted by her successful comeback. She was born in Kiptamok village, Nandy district, Rift Valley province. The money for tracksuits and running shoes was donated by her headmaster Daniel Maru, who was also lenient regarding the late payment of school fees. As a child, Jelimo had to compete with boys as the girls did not provide the competition she needed. Nevertheless it was all worthwhile because her rise to fame was spectacular.

After winning the African Junior Championships at Ougadougou (Burkina Faso) in 2007, Jelimo took the gold in both 800 metres and in the 4 x 400 metres at the Africa Championships in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) the following year.

That was the season she also won the Henglo Grand Prix, set a new African record (beating that held hitherto by the legendary Maria Mutola of Mozambique), was victorious in the Weltklasse at Zurich; at Brussels she collected a million dollars for being the only undefeated athlete in all six meetings of any event in the IAAF Diamond League, and closed the summer with success in the IAAF World Athletics Final at Stuttgart.

Yet the highlight of her performance was the 800 metres victory in 1:54.82 at the Olympic Games at Beijing. The then 18-year-old’s return to Kenya was greeted with major festivities. Unfortunately, from there it was all downhill.

Jelimo suffered from an Achilles strain in 2009 and did not finish the semi-final in the IAAF World Championships in Berlin. That was a pity because from her previous summer’s form, she would have given winner Caster Semenya of South Africa a tremendous contest. As recently as 2011, Jelimo’s career seemed to be over when she finished well last in the Prefontaine Classic at Eugene (USA).

While she blamed her faded form on injury, her previous coach, Said Aziz, blamed her attitude: “People who did not know Jelimo before,” Aziz said, “came and took over the management of her affairs. Some of us who had been with her from the beginning found ourselves being sidelined [and] her behaviour changed from a disciplined athlete to being unruly.”

Now Pamela Jelimo is back to form – and in such convincing style. The Kenyan women long-distance runners delivered a powerful punch in taking the first five places in the 2012 London Marathon, in the same city and along some of the streets in which the London 2012 Olympic Games title will be determined.

Winning for the second consecutive year, the 30-year-old Mary Keitany showed a very clean pair of heels to world champion Edna Kiplagat, and her other compatriots Priscah Jeptoo and Florence Kiplagat. It was such a supreme performance that no athlete who was not Kenyan was anywhere in sight. Race director Dave Bedford described the competition as being “the best women’s field ever seen”.

Keitany’s time of 2:18:37 was the quickest ever and the fastest by an African, erasing the previous record by Catherine Ndereba.

It was better than the 2:26:44 by Constantina Ditta-Tomescu, who won the Olympic Games gold at Beijing four years ago, but who incidentally, was well down the field in this race.

Keitany remarked: “I’m so delighted to win for the second time in London. I was tired but I knew I could finish strongly. I knew I could run 2:18 but to break Catherine’s national record is special for me.”

And from Botswana comes Montsho

Amantle Montsho of Botswana, who has risen to the fore as world champion in the very talented 400 metres division. She was born on 4 July 1983 and competed in the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games without winning any medals. Even so, her continental form was impressive and Montsho won gold in the All-Africa Games at Algiers in 2007 and set a new Botswana record in coming first in the African Championships at Addis Ababa the next year.

The “great leap forward” in her career came in 2010. After a good performance in the IAAF World Indoor Championships and African Championships outdoors, Montsho won the Bislett Games at Oslo in the IAAF Diamond League, took the gold medal in the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi – the first Botswana athlete to achieve the feat – and won another gold representing Africa in the IAAF Continental Cup at Split.

Used to seeing her placed usually in the body of the field, I was surprised by the way in which Montsho led from the front in besting the very good Jamaican athlete Rosemary Whyte in the international meeting at the Alexander Stadium in Birmingham in July 2011.

The improvement was a tribute to her training at the High Performance Training Centre in Dakar, Senegal.

A few weeks later, she caused a major upset by winning in 49.56, a new national record, in the World Championships at Daegu. She beat Alyson Felix, the charismatic American, who ran a personal best time, in a narrow finish. Sanya Richards-Ross, often regarded as being the best 400 metres runner in the world, was also in that race.

On that performance, Montsho must have the psychological “inside track” over her formidable rivals and cannot wait for the London 2012 Olympics to begin.

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