Hail the new King

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NAIROBI, Kenya, August 26- It had been coming. Throughout the season, David Rudisha’s performances had ominously pointed to something special. 1:42.04 in Oslo, 1:41.51 in Heusden Zolder and 1:42.84 in Nairobi had experts stating it was a matter of time before Wilson Kipketer’s record would be broken.

Rudisha lived up to expectations in spectacular fashion on August 22 when he shattered the longstanding record with a new world best of 1:41.09 in Berlin.

By breaking the 13 year old record set by Kenyan born Dane Kipketer in 1997, Rudisha made history as he is the first Kenyan to set a world record in the two lap race.

The record was the latest feat in a superlative year of running by the 21 year old Rudisha who has been untouchable this season with 13 straight victories stretching back to August last year.

Earlier this month, he ran an astonishing 1:42.84 at altitude to win the African Athletics Championships title in Nairobi.

It was new African record bettering his own African record which has now revised three times in the last year.

On 10 July, he had become second fastest man in the distance as well as only the fourth man to deep under 1:42 with a 1:41.51 at the KBC Night of Athletics in Heusden Zolder.

His graceful and fluid running style, complete with long strides, 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.

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, making 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 Youth Championships over 400m in Arusha, Tanzania. where he clinched silver in 48.2. 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 after the race. 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 continued. “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 Junior Championships, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Rudisha stormed to 800m gold in 1:46.41 (meet record). His first Golden League victory soon followed at the Weltklasse Meet in Zürich where he clocked 1:45.51. A week later, Rudisha roared past the field to register another 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 African crown in a championship record time of 1:44.20. Now up and running, the lanky athlete’s next stop was the 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 rising stars finally met on the track at the Golden League meet in Oslo where despite his best efforts Rudisha had to settle for second setting a new 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 4 and 5 July 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 8 May 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 then won the National Championships in June at a canter – which Coach O’Connell says helped get his confidence back. “After missing the 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,” said Rudisha, “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 would see him come up against his nemesis Kaki who had 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, said O’Connell, “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.

In Berlin, Rudisha cruised to the semis winning his heat in 1:47.83. But in a brutal semifinal, Rudisha was boxed in heat three finishing third (1:45.40) and thus missing out on a place in the final.

Failure to make the final would turn out to be a motivational tool and he is unbeaten over the distance since then.

He rebounded at the Wetlkasse Golden league meet in Zurich on August 28 clocking 1:43.52 to win his specialty. And followed it up with another win at the Van Damme Memorial in Brussels in 1:45.80.

Nothing however had prepared the world for his stunning performance in Rieti on September 6.

Running in perfect conditions, Rudisha floated round the track beautifully eating up ground with consummate ease as he posted a new African record of 1:42:01 breaking the previous record that had stood for 25 years!

The lanky athlete then capped off a fine late season with a comfortable win at the World Athletics final in Thessaloniki in a time of 1:44.85 on September 12.

Rudisha kicked off 2010 in some style running a new personal best in 400metres (45.50) in Sydney on February 27. A 1:43.15 timing in 800 metres in Melbourne five days later indicated his early form.

He clocked 1:43.00 to win the opening Diamond League Meet in Doha on 14 May and followed it up with a 1:44.03 at the Golden Spike meet in Ostrava.

June 4 was a hugely important day for Rudisha as he lined against his Sudanese rival Kaki in Oslo. Having lost to him in their two previous meetings, Rudisha was determined to get his revenge and he duly did with impressive front running to triumph in 1:42.04.

He then came back to Nairobi for the National Championships in June where he effortlessly cruised to win in 1:44.23. His winning streak stretched to Lausanne on July 3 with another impressive time of 1:43.25.

The came the night in Holland where Rudisha wrote his name in history books. With Sammy Tangui and Boaz Lalang helping set the pace, he powered forward with 250 metres to go finishing just a few tenths of a second shy of the world record if 1:41.11 set by Wilson Kipketer in 1997.

“Today I wanted to do something that I had never done before”, said Rudisha after his stunning race. “In the final stages it is always tough and I will need to improve on my last 50m if I want to break the World record. I do not feel disappointed at all about not breaking the World record. I enjoy to run well and to gradually become better and better. Today I wanted to run in the 1:41 and that is what I achieved and I feel great about that. But I’m confident that I will still improve and that is why breaking the World record is the next step in my development. It will happen.”

After Heusden, came the FArican event in Nairobi. In the final,m the question was not whether he would win but how fast he could go at altitude. He delivered with an incredible 1:42.84 despite visibly slowing down in the last few mewtres to retain the crown he won in Addis Ababa two years ago.

“I wanted to run a good time infront of the home crowd because they expected me to win. I am surprised at the time because I was thinking it would in 1:43 so to run 1:42 is great for me.”

Though he would not be drawn into whether he would attempt breaking the world record, his run at the ISTAF meet in Berlin was eagerly anticipated.

With Sammy Tangui as his pace maker, Rudisha went through the first  400 metres in 48.65 before taking over on the back straight. The lanky Kenyan pushed on from there crossing the 600m mark in 1:14 and then gracefully powered home to break the long standing record.

"Last year I had a bad time in Berlin. The weather was not very good and I did not make the final. So I did not want to talk too much about the world record before today’s race,” a beaming Rudisha said afterwards.

"But I knew it is my day,” he continued. “I trained very hard, the weather was good. I told the pacemaker to run the first lap under 49 seconds – he did a great job.”

"The last 200m I had to push very hard – but I saw the clock 1:41.09 at the end. "Fantastic, I am very happy to be the fastest 800 metres runner in the world."

His achievements vindicated his coach’s faith in his ability. “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 plateaus of Maasai land.

Personal Bests

400m: 45.50 (2010)
800m: 1:41.09 (2010)

Yearly Progression

800m: 2005-1:51.2; 2006: 1:46.3; 2007: 1:44.15; 2008 – 1:43.72; 2009 – 1:42.01; 2010-1:41.09

Career Highlights

2005    2nd     East-African Youth Championships (400m)
2006    1st    World Junior Championships (800m)
2006    4th     World Junior Championships (4x400m)
2007    1st    African Junior Championships (800m)
2007    1st    Weltklasse GP, Zürich (800m)
2007    1st     Van Damme Memorial GP, Brussels (800m)
2008    1st     African Athletics Championships (800m)
2009    SF     World Athletics Championships (800m)
2009    1st     World Athletics Final (800m)
2010    1st     African Athletics Championships (800m)
   

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