ITEN, Kenya – Brother Colm O’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.
O’Connell, coach to 800m 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 Kenya’s Rift Valley.
The 63-year-old’s idea to create Iten’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,” O’Connell told Reuters at his humble home within the grounds of St Patrick’s High School for boys.
Brimin Kipruto, the Beijing Games winner in the 3,000m steeplechase, is the most recent Olympic champion from O’Connell’s youth camp. Favourites to win maiden golds in London are marathon runner Edna Kiplagat and women’s 5,000 and 10,000m 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 5,000m world champion Mo Farah could be seen running up and down Rift Valley’s gentle hills where cows graze grass by the side of dusty red roads.
But O’Connell said the praise coming his way for Iten’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 don’t need anything to be a runner. Even as young kids they run barefoot – you don’t even need a pair of shoes,” he said.
As teenage boys in grey jumpers and green blazers spill out of St Patrick’s red-bricked classrooms, O’Connell pointed out that one of them could be a future star.
“There is an element of trial and error. Don’t think that everybody I take is a David Rudisha. You take 20 and you get one (champion),” he said.
For St Patrick’s students, the reminder of O’Connell’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 Patrick’s grounds will soon become a forest as future generations etch their name in the school’s folklore.
During the 2011 Daegu world championships, 10 of the 17 Kenyan medallists had been coached by O’Connell in Iten, mostly as teenagers in his training camp for juniors.
ATTITUDE AND APPROACH
In the London Games, eight products of his coaching school will represent Kenya. O’Connell, though, does not consider himself an athletics expert and refuses to follow textbook rules.
“It’s an attitude, it’s an approach, it’s the way you deal with an athlete. It’s the environment in which you bring them, that’s what is important. It’s not handing them a program or standing on the side with a whistle and a watch,” he said.
Although his Irish skin makes him stand out in the Kenyan countryside, O’Connell said adapting to the African way of life has been instrumental to his coaching success.
“I dumped all my western baggage when I came of how you think, how you want things to happen, what you believe in. I put all those aside and enter into the spirit of what it means in a rural village in the highlands of western Kenya.”
Rudisha is the favourite to win a gold medal over two laps in London but O’Connell said he has no intention of going to the Olympic Games for the first time in his life.
“I’m not going. I have no interest. I came to Iten many years ago as a young person to work among youth and that is still my priority.
“It’s not going to the Olympics, it’s not coaching superstars. If they become a superstar, it’s ok. If they don’t, not a problem.”