NAIROBI, Kenya, August 4 – Still only 20, David Lekuta Rudisha is widely tipped as the heir to the Kenyan- if not the world’s 800 metres throne, taking over the mantle of the two lap race from great athletes like Billy Konchellah, William Tanui, Wilfred Bungei, William Yiampoy and Alfred Kirwa Yego.
His graceful and fluid running style, complete with long stride, depicting the African style and poise earned him the iconic nickname ‘Pride of Africa’ (also the motto of national air carrier, Kenya Airways) during the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing.
And having missed last year’s Olympic Games due to injury, 6’ 3” Rudisha has some making up to do as he seeks to establish himself in the senior ranks and fulfill his undoubted potential.
Son of 1968 Olympic 4x400m relay silver, medallist Daniel Rudisha, the younger Rudisha shot to fame in spectacular fashion during the five-day competition in China, drawing wide acclaim.
A case of like-father like-son, Rudisha got the athletics buzz from his famous parent who showed him his Olympic medal when he was younger to spur him to great things. “I realised I could run after finding out that my dad used to run and it gave me the morale that if he did it then maybe I could also run,” the younger Rudisha says. “He made me so proud because I knew he could do it,” said the elder Rudisha, who was overcome with emotion as his son brought home the junior gold.
He started running seriously in 2004 while in the last year of his primary school education. He made it to the district and provisional levels but never to the nationals. Then, he was competing in decathlon.
In 2005, he linked up with veteran Irish coach, Brother Colm O’Connell after joining St Patrick’s Iten for his secondary education. That year, he represented Kenya at the East Africa Junior Championships over 400m in Tanzania where he clinched silver in 48.0. Having observed him in training, O’Connell advised him to switch to 800m, or at least double at both events, and a new star was born.
In 2006, Rudisha finished sixth at the senior African Championship trials at Kasarani; setting his then personal best of 1:46.3. Weeks later, he sealed his place at the national junior team for Beijing, running 1:47.20 at the event’s trials in Nairobi.
In Beijing, Rudisha blasted to glory in style. Running in his first ever two-lap race away from home, he was quietly confident as he waited for his opportunity.
“The competition would be stiff because the Bahrain athlete Mansoor was claiming that he had run 1:44 and that we had no chance so I kept quiet and decided to let my feet do the talking on the track,” he said. In the final, he stayed cool behind the pack until the last 100m when he produced a devastating kick to clinch gold in 1:47.40.
“I was so happy and elated,” he said. “It wasn’t easy but I had morale and wasn’t afraid of the competition. We had stiff competition but we gave ourselves the chance and drive to do well.”
At the 2007 Africa Youth Championships, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Rudisha stormed to 800m gold in 1:46.41 (meet record). His first major European GP victory soon followed at the Weltklasse Meet in Zurich where he clocked 1:45.51. A week later, Rudisha roared past the field to register victory at the Van Damme Memorial GP in Brussels (PB1:44.15).
In 2008, Rudisha qualified for the African Athletics Championships, in Addis Ababa, after clocking 1:47.2 in the third New KCC/AK meet at the Gusii stadium, a hundredth of a second (1:47.3) under the set entry time. A week later, Rudisha ran 1:47.0 in the fourth meet in Nakuru to clinch his second successive victory that placed him in good stead to make the Addis Ababa bound national team.
At the AAC in Addis in early May, Rudisha lived upto expectations by motoring away to win the Africa crown in a championship record time of 1:44.20.
Now up and running, the lanky athlete’s next stop was Doha Grand Prix where he clocked another fast 1:44.36 to win yet again.
Throughout the season, another 18 year old in the shape of World Indoor champion Abubaker Kaki was causing ripples on his own. The tyros finally met on the track at the Golden League meet in Oslo where despite his best efforts Rudisha had to settle for second setting anew Personal best of 1:43.72.
Six days later they faced up to each other again in Ostrava and again Rudisha came out second best (1:44.47) behind Kaki’s 1:43.80.
Shortly afterwards, disaster struck for Rudisha as he suffered shin and calf injuries while at the Pre Olympics training camp.
The injuries meant he would not be fit for the July 4 and 5 Trials and despite sustained calls to include him in the Beijing squad automatically, Athletics Kenya (AK) refused insisting that all Kenyan tickets for the Games would be earned at the selection event.
Hurt, Rudisha watched the Trials from the stands, the pain too much to bear as Wilfred Bungei, Boaz Lalang and World Champion Alfred Kirwa Yego made the team.
Bungei went on to win Olympic gold and his archrival Kaki was scorched at the semifinal where he finished eighth.
“Although disappointed, I was very excited when Bungei ran to the gold. He deserved it after all the effort he has made in his career.?
“My moment will come one day since I’m still young,” Rudisha said of his Olympics heartbreak.
He decided to skip the 2009 Indoor season to focus on getting in shape for the Berlin World Championships.
Consequently, his first outing of the season was at the May 8 Doha Super Grand Prix where he finished fourth (1:44.78). Then in June, Rudisha was up against Kaki in Hengelo where he set a new personal best time of 1:43.53 despite finishing fourth.
“I was surprised with the time because I had gone to test whether my injury had completely healed only for me to end up with a new personal best.”
He won the National Championships in June at a canter – which Coach O’Connell says helped get his confidence back.
“After missing Olympics, he was down for a long time mentally and it took a long while to raise him and get him to start running again. Even after the injury healed, it was still in his head. But when he ran the nationals and won three rounds, that was the turning point. He felt that he could again run freely and was back in shape.”
All season, Rudisha and World champion Alfred Kirwa Yego had avoided each other but they came head to head at the national trials in July with Rudisha coming out on top in 1:47.00.
“I am very happy to make the team, that’s why I haven’t run many races this year. I told myself that it would be better just to train and work out so that I compete in the trials and make the team.”
Berlin will see him come up against his nemesis Kaki who has beaten him in each of their last four meetings but despite that he remains confident.
“A championship is not like a Grand Prix. There are no pacemakers so I don’t expect guys to run their PBs there so a lot will depend with one’s tactics.”
“How he runs in Berlin will depend on what is in his head. How he handles the expectations. A lot depends on how he prepares himself against the opposition.
He has the ability but he will have to believe in himself because physically he is comfortable,” says O’Connell.
His coach certainly believes he has the ability to go to the very top. “It’s too early to say whether he will be the next Wilson Kipketer but he certainly had the ability. All he needs is time to slowly develop and not rush.”
O’Connell observes that Rudisha reminds him of two-time world champion Billy Konchellah. And the similarities are uncanny.
First and foremost they come from the same area-Kilgoris their homes are about 10km apart. Like Konchellah, he is Maasai, a tribe renowned for bravely and steel. Both are over six feet tall with long smooth strides and started as 400m sprinters before switching to the two-lap race. Softly spoken off the track, just like Konchellah, he has a similarly powerful kick in the last 150m where he simply strides away from the rest of the field.
“He is very level headed and always willing to learn,” O’Connell says. “He is always seeking to improve and work.” Rudisha says he draws encouragement from Konchellah, Japheth Kimutai and Yiampoy.
“I have met Yiampoy several times and he encourages me and advises me,” Rudisha said. “I have also watched Konchellah’s races and I think he was a great athlete.”
The sixth born in a family of seven, Rudisha spends his time away from the track and school farming and herding cattle in the scenic plains of Maasai land.
400m: 47.2 (2006)
800m: 1:43.53 (2009)
3000m Steeplechase: 8:11.18 (2007)
800m: 2006: 1:46.3; 2007: 1:44.15; 2008 – 1:43.72; 2009 – 1:43.53.
2006 – 1st, World Junior Championships (800m) Prepared by James Wokabi and Mutwiri Mutuota for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2008
2007 – 1st, Africa Junior Championships (800m)
1st, Weltklasse GP, Zurich (800m)
1st – Van Damme Memorial GP (Brussels, 1:44.15)
2008 1st African Athletics Championships (800m)
Prepared by James Wokabi and Mutwiri Mutuota for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2008