NAIROBI, Kenya, March 12- As the countdown to the London Olympics tolls, Kenya and indeed the world, should start getting used to the country’s newest sporting sensation, Helen Obiri Onsando.
On Sunday, she achieved what must rank as one of the biggest upsets in World Indoor Championships history when she mowed the Ethiopian four-time women 3,000m champion, Meseret Defar by catching up with her sprint and forcing the silver down her throat.
“I’m so happy to win the gold medal, because it is my first win and also because I defeated Meseret Defar, who is four-time world champion indoors.
“I knew that Defar has a strong kick in the last 20m meters, that’s why I had to make my move earlier, with 150m to go. In 2011 I didn’t perform well. I hope 2012 will be my year. I hope to do something in the 1500m at the Olympic Games,” Obiri, 22, told IAAF after her shocking triumph.
This was reflected when she lay prostate across the line for a couple of minutes after showing Defar a clean pair of heels to clinch gold in 8:37.16 before rising up with a look of bewilderment as she took her lap of honour.
“I am very disappointed and very sad. The last 200m were very hard, I did not expect this. My feelings right now are very bad,” the beaten Defar who arrived for silver in 8:38.26 said.
So, who is this latest sensation in the Kenyan female distance running map? The fourth born in a family of six- four girls and two boys-was born in Kisii where she attended Ikionga Primary School for her formative education.
Obiri, a Private at Kenya Defence Forces (KDF), joined Nairobi’s Riruta Satellite Secondary School that is among the renowned breeding grounds of athletics talent in the capital.
Among her school mates were the former World Youth/World Junior gold winner, Nelly Chebet Ngeiywo and the 2006 World Junior Champion, Pauline Korikwiang as she began her trade as an 800m runner.
She left Riruta in 2010 and joined the training camp run by coach Sammy ‘Romeo’ Rono and there, she met the man who radically altered her career path, the Sydney Olympics 1500m gold medallist Noah Ngeny.
“He is the one who convinced me to change from 800m to 1,500m when we were in training,” said Obiri who with the aid of Ngeny, was conscripted into the Kenya Defence Forces.
Having never represented her nation as an age athlete, Obiri exploded in the 2011 campaign that began in victorious fashion at her Samsung Diamond League and international racing debut in Shanghai (May 15) where she topped the rarely run 2000m race in 5:53.58.
That was followed by an inconspicuous outing at the IAAF Permit Meeting in Dakar, Senegal where she returned ninth (2:09.12) on May 28.
“When we returned, Noah asked me to try the 1,500m. At first, I was hesitant but my management arranged for races in Morocco and Russia and when I ran there, I started to become comfortable with the event,” she narrated.
Her first two races in the higher distance returned fourth (4:08.56/5 June) and third (4:10.90/3 July) finishes at the King Mohammed VI meet in Rabat and the Zhukovskiy race in Russia as the Kenyan Trials for the Daegu Worlds beckoned.
All eyes were focused on the Olympics champion, Nancy Jebet Lagat, who was enduring a jaded season as well as former World Junior champions Viola Kibiwott and Irene Jelagat who had held fort in the women’s Metric Mile event for the past three years as the showdown for Daegu tickets commenced.
No one bothered even to establish whom Obiri was after she seamlessly won her semi (4:17.6) but at the final she attacked Jebet Lagat who had led as they approached the final curve from behind and motored past her and to the line victorious in 4:08.68- a new star was born.
However, Obiri’s crowning moment fell apart when she collided with USA runner Marceline Uceny as they came for the final curve in a tight race ending the medal hopes of both runners where Obiri fell headlong to the track. She still had a race to finish and she duly rose up to limp to the line in 4:20.23 for 11th.
“She pushed me and this made me crash into the runner who was running alongside me in the middle hurting my knee. The good thing is that I now have the motivation after running with international athletes and I will seek Olympics qualifying time early so that I can prepare,” she stated.
“I’m so delighted about her performance but we do not want to celebrate it so much since she needs to maintain her focus. Obiri is disciplined and so determined and in an Olympics year, we cannot allow her to get the feeling she is on top.
“We plan for her to continue with her programme without many distractions as she prepares for the Olympics at the camp since we want her to scale greater heights. She proved that in Daegu, she would have won a medal had she not slipped since she is a strong finisher,” Ngeny told Capital Sport on Monday from Eldoret.
Obiri trains with the PACE Management camp in Kaptagat and that is where she is scheduled to head straight for upon her return from Turkey.
But that setback was duly drowned in the cesspool when she completed her monumental triumph over Defar in Istanbul on Sunday as she sealed the classic David versus Goliath victory.
– Material sourced from IAAF Focus on Athletes project/iaaf.org/flashinterviews