Irish Christian, Brother Colm O'Connell has made a lasting mark on African youth in Kenya.
Brother Colm O'Connell, 55, is the athletics coach and a retired headmaster at St. Patrick's High School in Iten, Kenya. Those titles, however, hardly hint at the seminal role he has played in Kenyan running. Since O'Connell began coaching in the late 1970s at St. Patrick's (a boys' boarding school), he has seen more than 100 of his athletes become world-class. A short list of St. Patrick's graduates includes 1988 Olympic 1,500m champion Peter Rono, 800m world record holder Wilson Kipketer, former world steeplechase record holder Wilson Boit Kipketer and three-time Boston Marathon champion Ibrahim Hussein.
ITEN, Kenya – At 6 each morning, the runners appear in groups, three here, five there, dressed in jackets and tights against the chill at 8,000 feet, as many as 500 of them training along red dirt roads that undulate through the farms of this rural village.
Here in the western highlands, the Great Rift Valley spreads out below, smoky with cloud cover, a breathtaking cleave of the earth. When Brother Colm O’Connell, an Irish priest, arrived here in 1976 to teach geography at St. Patrick’s High School, he intended to stay only two or three years.
“I’ve added a zero to that three,” he said with a laugh.
He knew nothing about distance running when he arrived. Three decades later, at age 59, the ruddy-faced O’Connell is a highly regarded coach in one of the world’s great running capitals.
He has retired from his job as headmaster at St. Patrick’s, but he lives at the school and trains 30 runners in the junior ranks and 5 elite athletes. His latest protégé is David Rudisha, a 19-year-old who has the world’s fastest time this year at 800 meters (1 minute 44.20 seconds) and is considered a favorite at the Beijing Olympics.
O’Connell’s success is evident in the trees planted to honor the St. Patrick’s alums who have achieved great international success: Ibrahim Hussein, winner of three Boston Marathons and one New York City Marathon; Peter Rono, a 1988 Olympic gold medalist at 1,500 meters; Wilson Boit Kipketer, a 1997 world champion and 2000 Olympic silver medalist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
So many trees were planted that the place began to feel overrun, O’Connell said. Other types of horticultural veneration had to be devised. Another runner named Wilson Kipketer, a two-time Olympic medalist who competed for Denmark and still holds the world record at 800 meters, did not get a tree.
“Wilson and a few others ended up as shrubs,” O’Connell said.
St. Patrick’s is a school for boys, but O’Connell also has been a pioneering coach for Kenya’s female runners. He has helped develop the only two Kenyan women to win a world championship on the track – Sally Borosio, who won the 10,000 meters at the 1997 world championships in Athens, and Janeth Jepkosgei, who won the 800 at the 2007 world championships in Osaka, Japan.
Late last month, O’Connell, slathered in sunblock, gathered his junior runners at 10 a.m. along the incline of a dirt road, 10 minutes from St. Patrick’s. This was to be the second of three daily workouts. All were track athletes. A controlled hill workout, O’Connell called it. He separated the teenagers into male and female groups and had them run in single file. This allowed him to temper overzealous competitiveness and to more easily study the efficiency of each runner’s stride.
“When you grow up running over rugged terrain, your body and technique and alignment tend to vary,” O’Connell said. “You can become a bit unstable, leaning forward or back, overstriding. When you deal with track athletes, who are running on a flat, regular surface, you have to lock them into a certain technique. Sometimes it can mean rebuilding muscles they have developed.”
That morning, Rudisha, his star pupil, was absent, preparing instead to run the 800 at the African championships in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which he won in world-leading time. He is the son of Daniel Rudisha, who won a silver medal as part of Kenya’s 4×400-meter relay team at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
David Rudisha is familiar with Beijing, having won the world junior championship in the 800 there in 2006. He received a scare in an accident last fall while traveling in a minibus taxi from his own high school to train near St. Patrick’s. The taxis, known as matatus, are infamous for their reckless drivers. The minibus in which Rudisha was riding flipped over, O’Connell said, causing him to miss two months of training with a back injury.
“He seems to be over it now,” O’Connell said. “I hope it doesn’t recur when things get tough.”
Beginning today, Kenya’s track athletes have been summoned to appear in nearby Eldoret for an extended Olympic training camp. Any absent athlete risks not being included on the Olympic team, and any pre-Olympic races on the international circuit will have to be cleared by the Kenyan track and field federation. This is an apparent attempt to closely monitor the Kenyan runners, who have been surpassed in recent years at major international competitions by their East African rivals from Ethiopia.
However, the letter went out only six days ago and has infuriated many agents, who feel the earning power of their runners is being constrained and that pre-Olympic plans are being needlessly disrupted. A number of agents consider the track federation officials to be corrupt and the track federation coaches to be incompetent. They worry that the camp training environment could have a more deleterious effect on Kenya’s Olympic chances than the ethnic violence that occurred in January and February. The agents tend to speak privately, fearing that public denunciation of the federation will cost their runners a spot on the Olympic team.
It is a corrosive situation, with some track federation officials, in turn, believing that Kenyan runners are taken advantage of by non-Kenyan agents.
“There is a concern among individual elite athletes, who have laid out their own training programs months ago, that this is a change in direction,” O’Connell said. “They’ve already laid out their Grand Prix races. Now they get short notice of a change. However, if athletes don’t have their own personal coaches, or they don’t belong to the armed forces, they might benefit from such camps.”
O’Connell will not attend the Beijing Games, preferring to remain in the background once the national coaches assume control of Kenya’s runners.
After three decades of observing Kenya’s runners firsthand, he has heard all the theories about why they are pre-eminent distance runners: increased oxygen-carry capacity from living at altitude; a diet rich in protein and carbohydrates; genetic factors; a tough, disciplined way of rural living.
“I think motivation is very important,” O’Connell said. “Many athletes come from poor backgrounds, small peasant farming communities. Almost every village has an athlete who has been successful at some level or another. People see the lifestyle these role models can have with cars, farms. There is great motivation to become athletes.”
The temperature is also moderate here in Iten, generally between 50 and 80 degrees, which facilitates training. And there is little exposure to malaria at this altitude.
And one other thing.
“A lot of people overlook the level at which they train,” O’Connell said of Kenya’s runners. “People assume they just have natural talent. But they train incredibly hard.”
Click to view image: 'Brother Colm O'Connell'
|Liveleak on Facebook|