Athletics Athletics

Sally- The scholar and track star eyeing gold

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NAIROBI, Kenya, July 23- In Sally Kipyego, Kenya has a track star and scholar rolled into one, traits that set her above her teammates for London 2012.

The record-equalling nine time NCAA American Collegiate champion will be making only her third appearance for her country since she burst to the scene at the 2001 World Cross Country Championships in Belgium.

While all talk has centred on Vivian Cheruiyot’s bid to become the first Kenyan double Olympics champion in replicating her feat at the World Championships last year, Kipyego will also be competing at the 5,000m and 10,000m races in London.

Considered by many as the under sturdy to the “Pocket Rocket”, Kipyego is not travelling to London to play second fiddle to anyone, having gained the confidence needed by finishing second to Cheruiyot over 10,000m in South Korea last year.

“I achieved incredible things last year and this is the same calibre of women going to the Olympics or even better and anything can happen.”

“Its athletics and people from out of nowhere can come, who expected Nancy Jebet Langat to win the Olympics? I cannot count somebody out, who expected I would get silver last year?” she stressed before her departure to London on Sunday.

“I’m a dreamer, if you asked me 2 years ago if I was to go to the Olympics two or three years ago to do the double, I would have just smiled and remained optimistic, you never know,” she adds on her chances of trumping all comers and entering history books.

Having qualified to run for her nation by finishing third in the 25-lap race and second in the shorter event at the June 23 Kenyan Trials, Kipyego who is a member of the Oregon Track Club has navigated a rocky path to the summit of distance running.

The last born in a family of 7 had the privilege of growing up in the same household with accomplished distance athletes, Christopher and Michael Kipyego who boast of sub 2:15 marathon personal bests and the latter is a former World Junior titleholder and African Championships silver winner in the steeplechase.

However, this did not guarantee a seamless progression to the rewarding track career she enjoys especially since 2006 when she joined Texas Tech University to pursue a degree in nursing having gained scholarship to the South Plains College in Levelland, Texas at the end of 2004 to be a Human Sciences major.

The odds were stuck against her from birth considering she hails from Marakwet where female circumcision and cattle rustling are customary and when she was four years old, her father died, leaving her mother alone to raise the children.

The family was poor and her mother was often sick and upon turning 11 her brother’s friend was injured in a bicycle accident.

She ran almost 9 kilometres to the nearest clinic but the doctor was drunk and kicked her out. The incident motivated her desire to become a nurse so she could help provide better healthcare.

“My mum raised us all. She is one incredible woman and I’m forever grateful for us. She never needed to say one word and you knew she believed in you. I love her and I’m so grateful for her since it was not easy.”

Kipyego started running while still a pupil at Kaptung Primary School in Marakwet where her younger brother, Michael, gave her the motivation she needed to excel when he won the World Junior steeple title while still a novice.

“I was in Standard 7 and 8 and at point, I didn’t really think I was that good but I had an older brother, Mike, who became really successful when he was young, represented the country when he was in Standard 8 and he was an inspiration,” she explained the Genesis of her athletics calling.

“When you are in the village and you don’t get the opportunities to travel even to Eldoret, it is encouraging for a young girl that I can maybe fly one day,” she said.

“Seeing my brother flying out of the country was a huge motivator and I thought okay, this is maybe one way of getting out and see the world. It encouraged me to open my eyes and see something greater than my immediate environment could offer.”

Having joined a training camp ran by coach Boniface Tiren, who is among those in the Team Kenya technical bench for London 2012 in 2000, it took a year for Kipyego to burst into her nation’s squad for the World Cross in 2001 where she finished sixth in the junior women 6km race.

“I ran very well that year but in 2002, I got injured, I had a stress fracture to my left tibia which I did not know. I stopped running completely for about three years and when I came back, it was after finishing high school in 2003.”

“In 2004, I started to get back to running I was doing 18:00 and 19:00 for 5000m and it was horrible. I was in really bad shape but healthy at that point but I had lost all fitness, I had to start from the ground again,” she told of how her promising career was cut short.

She started picking up the pieces and three wins in three starts inside a month marked her freshman year in 2005 proving she had it in her legs to chase glory and by the time she left Texas Tech in 2009, she had ran to collegiate history by winning nine NCAA titles and only the thickness of a vest denied her a tenth at her final championships.

This tied her with Wisconsin’s Suzy Favor-Hamilton having taken her only two and a half years to accomplish what her peer did in four and only three-tenths of a second stood between the Kenyan from winner Sarah Bowman of the University of Tennessee in the One Mile final (4:29.72 against 4:29.75) for Sally to stand alone in the annals of collegiate history.

“In 2006 when I won the first title that was the first step, the huge beginning for me because it started an amazing career. I did not think I was capable but when I won the first title, it changed my mentality completely and I started going to every race to win,” Kipyego said.

“It was an honor to achieve what I did and at the end of my college career at Texas Tech, I had become the first person to win the Cross three times and I would not have traded that for anything since a lot of things happen behind the scene.”

Faced with a tough decision, Kipyego decided to shelve a career in nursing to pursue a career on the track and that is when she moved to Oregon to link up with Coach Mark Rowland, a bronze medallist in the steeple from the 1988 Seoul Olympics Games.

“That is the best decision I ever made in my career because the places I have gone from there are amazing. I have taken huge steps and seen things that I never thought possible,” she said.

Having unsuccessfully contested to represent Kenya at the Osaka and Berlin World Championships in 2007 and 2009 and skipping selection to 2008 Beijing Olympics, Kipyego finally managed to crack the squad in 2011 when she finished second to Cheruiyot at the Daegu Trials.

Again, she followed Cheruiyot home in 30:50.04 for the second medal at the first track final of the Worlds on 27 August and it was hard to tell who among the two Kenyan top girls was more delighted.

“To get the silver was way out there for me. Even the announcer did not get my name right when I listened to the clip after the race. To go there as an underdog and return home second was confirmation I can be the best. Few apart from my husband, coach and friends believed I was in such good shape.”

That laid the platform for a double assault on the Olympics this year and having achieved the first objective, only the London Stadium stands between her and glory.

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