ITEN, December 17- With a stop-watch in one hand and an eye on the odometer, a stout sun-burned Brother Colm concentrates on the road ahead and a team of sweat drenched athletes panting in front of the car.When he came to Kenya 35 years ago, athletics was as foreign to Colm O’Connell, a Cork-born lay brother, as it is to most clergy.
"When I first landed in Kenya on 25th June, 1976, I did not know much about athletics. In fact my favorite sport was football," says the Irishman. "Even today, I’m an ardent Arsenal fan."
A member of the Brothers of St. Patrick’s Catholic order, he started out as an assistant coach for the St. Patrick’s High School for Boys in Iten, a medium-sized town in Kenya’s Rift Valley, while teaching geography.
He went on to head the school for eight years from 1986 to 1993.
Brother Colm then retired from teaching in order to devote his time to nurturing talent and now runs the Iten Athletics Camp.
St Patrick’s is not your ordinary high school. It is one of the world’s most prolific pools of athletics talent, especially in middle and long distance running.
Throughout his coaching career, he has coached more than 20 Olympians and several world champions including Peter Rono, Wilson Kipketer, Ibrahim Hussein, Lydia Cheromei and Susan Chepkemei.
The recent crop include Asbel Kiprop, David Rudisha, Isaac Songok, Augustine Choge, Linet Masai, Mercy Cherono, and 800m sensation Janet Jepkosgei, who spent four years under O’Connell before making her breakthrough.
The school has a fast-expanding "wall of fame" at the back of its dining hall with pictures and plaques celebrating the countless medals and achievements of St. Patrick’s alumni.
"Is there a favorite? All are," Brother Colm says. "But two photos stand out: the Cheruiyot twins, Kipkoech and Charles, both Olympians at the 1984 Los Angeles Games seen in this photo running cross-country past two giraffes in the savanna," he says.
"And here we have Peter Chumba and Peter Rono winning the 10,000 metres final at the first ever World Junior Championships in Greece in 1986" in what newspapers then dubbed "The Victory of the Barefooted."
Outside, around the classroom block, is a grove of champions.
Any former student who sets a world record or wins an Olympic or world medal has a tree planted in his honour. The oldest tree is for Mike Boit, a bronze medallist at the 1972 Olympics; the youngest for 2001 world youth champion Isaac Songok.
O’Connell talks of his athletes with great pride, refers to them as either "my boys" or "my girls" and says their success motivates him to continue running his production line of champions at the age of 59.
"Coaching is not as easy as many people tend to believe," he says. "You have to be patient and understanding of the athletes. You have to defend them and stand by them especially when good results are not forthcoming."
Brother Colm is something of a celebrity in Iten and around but he continues to lead a modest life, despite the fact that athletics is becoming to Kenya what football already is to western Africa: big business.
The seven senior athletes currently under his supervision at St. Patrick’s have had to settle for the spartan bungalows on the school compound but still drive around in their flashy SUVs while the coach judders along in a 20-year-old sedan.
In a move aimed at ensuring the camp’s future, O’Connell is currently training a 20-year-old coach, Ian Kiprono, to take over his mantle.
Soon a sexagenarian, O’Connell maintains a 40-minute walk every morning around the roads of Iten. This, and giving his best to his proteges, he does with the same consistency he celebrates mass.