NAIROBI, Kenya, October 14 – Nancy Jebet Langat’s two gold medal haul at the just concluded Commonwealth Games in Delhi is a new chapter to the riveting story of the 29 year old’s illustrious athletics career.
The Armed Forces corporal produced arguably the most stunning upset of the 29th Olympics in Beijing track competition when she won the women’s 1500m gold medal.
Having finished third at the selection event for Beijing, even the most optimistic Kenyans had not envisaged her momentous win.
But on the eve of her 27th birthday at a sold out Bird’s Nest in Beijing with 600 metres to go she hit the front with a devastating kick that left a classy field including hot favourite Maryam Jamal to win gold – becoming only the second Kenyan woman to take the Olympic crown.
But for those with a bit of history, Langat’s success should not have been a surprise. The soft spoken athlete is one of the more experienced female athletes in Kenya having first represented the country 13 years ago.
Outstanding as a junior, she was making her comeback to international championships in 2008 after two years out to attend to maternal duties and since then, she had set about making up for lost time chalking up a series of impressive wins.
Athletics runs in the family. The 1999 World Youth 3000m champion Alice Timbilil is her cousin and her father was a 5000m runner. Jebet started running when she was very young, winning the 1995 National junior cross country trials in Nairobi while still a pupil at Kapletingi Primary School, but she was dropped from the national team because she was under age.
The following year, Jebet joined Kapkenda Girls for her secondary school education and won the 800m at the National junior trials to make the team for the 1996 World Junior Championships, in Sydney, where she won bronze in 2:03.21. In 1997, she finished eighth at the National junior cross country trials and she did not make the trip to Turin for the World Cross Country.
1998 was a more successful year for the starlet as she placed second at the National trials in Nairobi to break into the Kenyan cross country team for the first time. She found the going tough at the World Cross Country, in Marrakech, where she finished 38th. During the same year, she won 800m at the National junior trials to earn selection for the World Junior Championships, in Annecy, France. There she finished second (2:05.43).
In 1999, Jebet won 800m silver (2:07.01) at the African Junior Championships in Tunis but, in 2000, she was victorious at the World Junior Championships in Santiago, Chile. She timed 2:01.51 to win at the third time of trying. Back home, she won trials for the Olympics but was dropped from the Sydney-bound team as she had not clocked the required time of 2:00.00 set by Athletics Kenya officials. She had posted a personal best 2:01.26 in Linz just before the Olympics.
Having already cleared school, Jebet got married in 2001 and the following year she gave birth to Keith Kipkoech.
She started her comeback in 2003 and was fully back on track in 2004, moving up to 1500m. On her return, she recorded 4:10.42 in Kalamata, Greece, in May and the following month she placed second at the National Championships, in Nairobi (4:19.2). She then won the Olympic trials in 4:14.3 to book her place for Athens.
In July, Jebet clocked 4:06.28 in Lausanne before winning the African 1500m title in Brazzaville, in the Republic of the Congo (4:24.56). In Athens, she finished fourth in her heat (4:06.94) but she could only manage seventh place (4:07.57) in the Semi-finals. In September she improved her seasonal best to 4:05.32 in Rieti, Italy, before lowering it to 4:04.76 in Rovereto, also in Italy. Her seasonal best in 800m of 2:05.63 was clocked in June.
Jebet started 2005 by finishing fifth at the selection event in Nairobi in February to earn a spot in the Kenyan team for the World Cross Country in St-Etienne/St-Galmier, France. There she finished eighth to help Kenya to win the team title. She opened her track season with a 2:02.51 800m before clocking 4:04.01 in her opening 1500m on 1 June. Two weeks later, she posted her personal best time in the 1500m (4:02.31) at the Athens Grand Prix.
Returning to Nairobi at the end of June for the trials for the World Championships, Jebet won in 4:10.36 to book a place in the Helsinki bound team. Another fast race in Lausanne (4:03.89) put her in good stead for the Worlds but she found the going tough in the Finnish capital, crashing out in the heats (11th, 4:16.13).
In 2006, Jebet joined the Armed forces and after conscription had to take time off to attend to maternal duties resuming training five months after the birth of her second born child Klein Cheruiyot.
The mother-of-two was back on track in 2008 and qualified for the African Championships, in Addis Ababa, in April, placing fourth (4:16.19). The following month, she improved her season’s time to 4:08.62 while finishing fourth in the Doha Grand Prix. After achieving the Olympic qualifying time with a 4:03.80 run for second place behind African champion Gelete Burka, in Eugene, Jebet clocked 4:14.09 to finish third in Kenya’s trials and book her place in Beijing.
In Beijing, with Irene Jelagat and Viola Kibiwott exiting competition after finishing ninth and fifth in their heats, it was left to Jebet Langat to plough the lone furrow for her country. At the event’s semi-final, Jebet cruised to victory, surprisingly, it must be said, in 4: 03.02.
But she reserved her final act of ultimate glory at Beijing’s Bird Nest when as everyone watched to see by what margin World Champion and Bahraini Athlete, Jamal would win Olympic gold, Jebet struck. A searing burst in the back straight ripped Jamal as well as the rest of the field as Jebet won Olympic gold in 4:00.23, her personal best time.
The shy but genial runner said after the race, “I had no tactic, no plan.” But a day after Pamela Jelimo became the first Kenyan female runner to win Olympic gold, Jebet had cemented her place in her country’s history.
Her victory stunned even her Beijing team captain, Wilfred Bungei, who also won the men’s 800m top medal at the same Olympics. “I was surprised and I am happy for her. We need to give credit to her,” Bungei told IAAF.
The victor attributed her win to change of coach and tactics, “In the past I had a different coach and training was really different. I was not really doing proper training, not like in the last year.”
On her return home, Jebet was feted like other Olympic gold medallists, earning some $25,000 (Sh2m) in rewards from government and corporate partners.
On October 4, Jebet Langat joined other medallists from Beijing in a huge party thrown in their honour by Members of Parliament from Kenya’s Rift Valley region.
“All my fellow athletes and all Kenyans noticed that Kenyan women can also be good middle distance runners. I received special prizes from AK and was promoted to corporal by the Armed Forces.”
She made her first appearance in 2009 at the Kenya Armed Forces Cross Country Championships where she finished ninth in the women’s race.
“This will be a very difficult year for me since everyone will aim at beating me. I will train even harder to keep in good shape for the season,” Jebet said while training for her first outdoor event of the year, the May 8 Qatar Athletics Grand Prix in Doha.
“Even now, I find it hard to believe I won gold in Beijing but it is an achievement that fills me with great pride. I know that I deserved reward for my long career and it gave me motivation to aim for more.
“The victory will inspire more young girls to take up athletics and believe in themselves,” she said.
Going into the Berlin World Championships, her sights were trained on the World crown. “It would be a huge honour but it will not be easy to achieve especially since many top athletes would want to work hard and beat me. I cannot surprise anyone anymore,” she declared.
Berlin though would not carry such good fortune. She was second in her heat to qualify for the semis, but things got much worse with the Olympic champ only managing a sixth place in the semi-finals (4:11.10) and with that went any chance of adding the world crown to her collection.
Jebet Langat rebounded in typical style setting a seasonal best of 4:01.64 at the Wetlkasse in Zürich on 28 August. Three days later she ran a then personal best in 800 metres of 1:59.17 in Rovereto.
She followed it up with a win at the World Athletics Final (4:13.63) before closing out the season with a win in Daegu (4:06.80).
Disappointed with a below par 2009, Jebet Langat started 2010 like a bush on fire winning five straight races.
First up was the inaugural Diamond League meeting in Doha, where she clocked (4:01.63) on 14 May before taking the tape in Hengelo in 4:02.09 on 30 May. Two more wins in Rabat (4:05.80) and New York (4:01.60) set up her up for the national championships in Kenya.
In Nairobi she was a class above the rest, easily winning in 4:10.11. At Prefontaine Classic in Eugene on 3 July, Jebet Langat clocked an impressive personal best in 800 metres timing 1:57.75 in second place. She wasn’t done setting personal bests, as a five days later she clocked her PB over 1500 metres in Lausanne timing 4:00.13.
As one of the most in-form athletes this season, Jebet Langat went into the African Athletics Championships as the overwhelming favourite despite the presence of arch rival Gelete Burka of Ethiopia.
And she did not disappoint, applying her famous kick with 300 metres to go and again with 100 to go to secure her second African title in a time of 4:10.43 in Nairobi.
She then turned her attentions back to Europe as she chased Diamond League honours. First up was Stockholm on August 6 where she timed 4:00.70 to win and she won again in London (4:07.60) a week later.
Jebet Langat wrapped up the Samsung Diamond League season with a win in another fast race in Zurich (4:01.01) becoming the first Kenyan to win the newly introduced Samsung Diamond Trophy in the event.
800 Metres – 1:57.75 (2010)
1500 Metres – 4:00.13 (2010)
800m: 1998 – 2:05.43; 2000 – 2:01.26; 2005 – 2:02.51; 2008 – 2:05.84; 2009 -1:59.17; 2010 – 1:57.75
1500 Metres: 2004 – 4:04.76 2005 – 4:02.31; 2008 – 4:00.23; 2009 – 4:01.64; 2010 – 4:00.13;
1996 3rd World Junior Championships (800m)
1998 38th World Cross Country Championships (Short course)
1998 2nd World Junior Championships (800m)
1999 2nd African Junior Championships (1500m)
2000 1st World Junior Championships (800m)
2004 1st African Championships (1500m)
2004 SF Olympic Games (1500m)
2005 8th World Cross Country Championships (Short course)
2005 heats World Championships (1500m)
2008 4th African Championships (1500m)
2008 1st Olympics Beijing (1,500m)
2009 SF World Athletics Championships (1500m)
2009 1st World Athletics Final (1500m)
2010 1st Africa Athletics Championships (1500m)
2010 1st Diamond League Race Final Standings (1500m)