Since showing flashes of brilliance as a junior runner, Lance Corporal Abel Mutai has overcome forced career breaks to force his way through in the Kenyan Olympics squad in the water and barriers race that has brought home the last seven gold medals from the Games.
For the better part of the last decade, the men steeple team has been dominated by the last two Olympic gold medallists, Ezekiel Kemboi (2004) and Brimin Kipruto as well as Commonwealth winner, Richard Mateelong and circuit speedster, Paul Kipsiele who won the third medal in Athens.
However, a solid season saw the Kenya Defence Forces officer finish third at the June 23 Kenyan Trial to line-up alongside the men he seeks to emulate as Olympic gold winners in London, Kipruto and Kemboi whom he trailed to the line in that order.
“I was so surprised I made it since I did not believe I could beat champions. Brimin, Kemboi, Kipsiele and Mateelong have been making the Olympics and World Championships team and to compete with them and get a place left me in shock.
“Running for my country is the best thing that can happen to a patriotic athlete. It is a fight to make the Kenyan team and an achievement since it places you somewhere. My aim is to maintain my place, never turning back so hopefully, I can run at the 2013 World Championships and the Olympics in 2016,” he cheerfully welcomed his Olympics debut.
Until then, Mutai was at the risk of falling in the cess pool of talent that has failed to dislodge the established order from their perch having announced his arrival to the international stage with a belated victory at the 2005 World Youth Championships held in Marrakech, Morocco.
During the event, he actually finished in the silver position behind Bahrain’s Tareq Mubarak Taher with the clocks returning 5:23.95 against 5:24.69 as compatriot Bisluke Kiplagat (5:24.87) arrived in third.
However, world governing body IAAF found Taher (born Dennis Kipkurui Sang) guilty of falsifying his age when he switched to the Gulf State and consequently, Mutai was elevated to the 2000m steeplechase boys’ gold.
“That was a strange for me although our chairman (Athletics Kenya) Isaiah Kiplagat always maintained he had cheated. It was not the way I would have wanted to win but I was pleased with my performance,” he recalls.
The following year, Mutai failed to qualify for the Beijing World Juniors but nonetheless ran career bests in 3000m (8:05.16) and 5000m (14:07.80) as well as a year best 8:35.38 in the steeple achieved on his first outing outside Africa in Portugal during the month of June.
In 2007, Mutai bagged the African Junior steeplechase title in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in 8:29.76 out-sprinting Ethiopia’s Yakob Yarso (8:29.99) and fellow Kenyan, Patrick Terer (8:34.59). Three days later, the versatile runner clocked 14:53.53 for seventh in the 5000m as he attempted the double.
Mutai joined the Defence Forces at the end of that year but Military School studies kept him out of action for all of 2008, returning the next year to unsuccessfully bid for the Berlin Worlds squad where a fifth finish of 8:30.81on July 25 at the Trials ended his interest. However, he put together a solid season that saw him qualify for the last World Athletics Final in Thessaloniki, Greece in September.
An Achilles tear in training locked him out of competition for the entire 2010 but the steeplechaser returned last year keen on rebuilding his interrupted career.
Another fifth finish (8:27.49) at the Kenyan Trials once again saw him miss another World Championships but he was nonetheless selected to compete at the Maputo All Africa Games.
Clearly bereft of form, he could only muster an eighth finish in 8:36.75 as another season drained away in disappointment.
“I resumed training in 2009 and I was finding my way back but the injury kept me out of a whole year. It was very annoying but I believed that I would be back. It was frustrating since I had trained well in readiness to compete,” he explained.
But there would be no denying him this season where he has finally realised the potential his latent talent deserves.
Mutai obliterated his previous lifetime best with a third finish at the Rome Golden Gala Diamond League meet in May, when he stopped the timer in a huge personal best of 8:01.67. Only the brilliant run by Kipsiele who breezed to a 7:54.31 world lead that was a hundredth of a second off the world record bettered Mutai on the day.
Victories at the Confederation of Africa Athletics meet (8:08:44) in Brazzaville and National Championships (8:27.7) primed him for the Olympics Trials where he followed Beijing champion Kipruto and his hero Kemboi across the line in 8:13.47 for third and a place in London.
He turned up at the African Senior Championships in Benin where he brought his country gold in 8:16.05 before finishing (8:03.15) behind Kipsiele and Kipruto in his last event before the Olympics in Monaco.
“We are a good squad capable of bringing the 1-2-3 back home. This is our race and we are not going to let it go in London, that is the mission we have as a team and individually, I’m aiming for a medal, the colour? I cannot predict,” he assured.