KAPSABET, May 23 – 2008 was supposed to be Janeth Jepkosgei’s year.The petite 800 metre athlete had dominated 2007 on track dethroning ‘Mozambique Express’ Maria Mutola almost contemptuously.
By adding the World 800 metres gold medal to the 2006 Commonwealth and African titles and setting a new Kenyan record along the way before proceeding to record six straight victories culminating in that 1:59:00 run in Nairobi on the Tusker Night of Champions meeting, Janeth’s star was on the rise.
She was the new pin-up girl of Kenyan athletics and her popularity rose earning her the nickname ‘Eldoret Express’ after the famous Nairobi Eldoret bus company.
Her off track persona, charisma and sense of fashion further endeared her to the adoring public and she had the world at her feet.
But she had not reckoned with the sudden emergence of Pamela Jelimo. Hailing from the same district as Jepkosgei, the 18-year-old tyro came to prominence when she won the 2008 African Athletics Championships in Addis Ababa.
Jepkosgei was absent so their first meeting was eagerly anticipated, who would come out tops?
That meeting took place at the opening Golden League meeting in Berlin where Jelimo absolutely set the tone for what would be the rest of season with a commanding win.
From being the new queen, Jepkosgei was relegated to being the bridesmaid as Jelimo tore apart the tracks in Europe culmination in winning the Olympic Gold and the IAAF Golden League jackpot that she had so yearned for.
November came with it a sigh of relief as Jepkosgei got the chance to put her feet up and take stock. Meeting in her Kapsabet in the build up to the 2009 season, Jepkosgei confesses that Jelimo was a bolt from the blue.
“Last year when Pamela came up it was a surprise. I was dispirited and lost a bit of focus in my race as I tried to keep up with her,” says the 25 year old.
Maybe Jepkosgei should be blaming herself; after all, she was the one who encouraged Jelimo- a 400 metre athlete – to take up the longer distance.
“I told her to try 800 metres because she was stronger and I don’t regret it because sport is for everyone and challenges are good for the sport.”
“We meet and talk and especially after the season and last year most of the time she would ask questions and I would advise her. I would like us to run for long and have a successful career like the one Mutola had.”
Now refreshed and ready for 2009, Jepkosgei says she is more focused this year. Talking to her you get the feeling that she is hungrier than last year. Eager to prove a point and reclaim her status as the 800 metre queen.
“I am determined to work hard and close the gap. Last year Jelimo was like 5-6 seconds ahead but I want it reduced. I want to be more competitive.
I would also like to improve my time. Last year I tried, but could not better my personal best so I will be trying again this year.”
Her main goal of the year remains the World Athletics Championships in Berlin where she will attempt to defend her crown.
“Berlin is obviously on my list. I want to work hard and be there and be competitive and win a medal. I am not sure which one but have one.”
She knows that to triumph in the German city, she will have to be at her very best so will she deploy the same front running tactics, “When fit I will be just as aggressive as I always am.”
There has been talk in some quarters of her maybe taking up the 1500 metres race and she recently ran the three and three quarter lap race in Doha but Jepkosgei says it won’t be for a while yet.
“I will try that but not now maybe much later since I still don’t have the endurance needed to run it so it will have to wait.”
Off the track, Jepkosgei has immersed herself in the community.
She has certainly tried to give something back to her former Kapsambeiwo Primary school by donating sporting kit that includes balls, nets and athletics equipment.
“I am a role model to most of the pupils and would like to see the school become even better.”
She certainly is doing her bit undertaking to pay the salaries of three teachers who teach in the school. She also sponsors students some of who are already in University.
“I sponsor seven students from here two are in Moi University and I am proud that they have done well in education.”
A visit to the school depicted just how highly they hold her as they organized an impromptu tree planting ceremony as well as a brief sermon for her visitors.
She is also helping with the construction of a local church, “That is where I grew up spiritually and where I learnt that I had to be disciplined which has really helped me in my training.”
Having harboured ambitions to be a nurse when growing up, Jepkosgei is determined to go back to school though the dream of wearing the starchy white may not materialise.
“I wanted to be a nurse but that has passed. But I will go back school in October. What I will study, I still don’t know yet am still deciding,” she offers.
But before then is the small matter of the reclaiming her status as the queen of 800 metres.