NAIROBI, Kenya, September 12- Making history has become a hallmark of Kenyan men Javelin star, Julius Yego, and this year is not different as he bids to pursue another first at the IAAF Continental Cup in Marrakesh, Morocco, the same city he held on to his continental crown last month.
Yego and history have become synonymous since he won his country a maiden men’s Javelin gold medal at the All Africa Games in Maputo in 2011 to become the only acclaimed Kenyan star in athletics outside the distance running world beaters the nation is more famed for.
His progression from a downcast teenage field athlete, who shed tears when Athletics Kenya declined to enter him for the 2008 World Junior Championships despite his 72.41m throw qualifying him for the competition, to a global star has been nothing short of phenomenal.
Known widely as the ‘YouTube Man’, Yego circumvented the lack of proper coaches in his chosen sport by spending hours at cyber cafes in Nairobi and Eldoret to improve his technique by watching his idols, led by World record holder, Jan Zelezny, on the video sharing website, forcing the same authorities who crushed his World Junior dream to parade him as a success in the country’s efforts to expand its medal catchment in the sport.
“In the press conference after winning gold in Mozambique, journalists asked me who was my coach and I told them it was YouTube for it was there that I learnt how to throw.”
His success in Maputo caught the eye of the IAAF who gave him a two week training course in Finland. It was here that he met Petteri Piironen who would play a big role in his development. Based in Western Finland, he helped Yego immensely working on his technical side and physique.
Starting in Maputo, Yego has gone ahead to break the national record no less than six times, his latest best mark, 85.40m, at the Moscow World Championships, where he finished just outside the medals and his exceptional list of firsts expanded in 2014 to include the Commonwealth Games title as well as a place at the Continental Cup.
In 2012, he made history as the first African Javelin thrower to qualify for the Olympics final in London.
In Moscow, Yego’s expanding list of landmarks continued as he became the first ever field captain of the Kenyan squad, besides being the pioneering exponent of his event to represent his nation at the biennial global showpiece.
Inspired by the legendary record holder, Zelezny, Yego knew from the start that he was destined to excel in Javelin. “It is my talent and I had interest in Javelin since I was in Standard Six (sixth year of primary school),” he asserted.
Having won successive domestic titles in 2009 and 2010, Yego won his first medal for his nation at the Nairobi 2010 Africa Athletics Championships with a best effort of 74.51m that fuelled his desire to achieve more.
This led him to turn to YouTube to study the techniques of Zelezny and his other favourite throwers, double Olympic champion (2004 and 2008), Andreas Thorkildsen and Osaka Worlds gold medallist, Tero Pitkämäki.
“I realised that the coaching here would never improve me and that is why I turned to YouTube to watch champion Javelin throwers such as record holder Zelezny, Thorkildsen and Pitkämäki.”
His efforts paid off when he won the top medal at the Maputo All Africa Games in 2011 in his first of six national records, 78.34m, becoming an instant sensation when his YouTube story went viral home and abroad.
With his billing as a prospect for the London Olympics assured in addition to the buzz his triumph created, AK, facilitated Yego to travel to Finland in late 2011 and early 2012 to improve on his technique.
In 2012, he adjusted the NR thrice with 79.95m (April), 81.12m (July) and 81.81m (August) with the latter coming at the heats at London Olympics where a ninth finish saw him become the first African to contest the final at the event. Also in July before he travelled to London, Yego’s 76.68m best effort was enough to make him the first Kenyan to strike African Championships gold in Javelin at the competition held in Porto Novo, Benin.
“Being an African champion is a great honour. When I was in the stadium everyone was looking at me and exclaiming, ‘Oh! Look! A Kenyan is winning the Javelin’. Looking at South African and Egyptian athletes who have better facilities, winning filled me with so much pride,” he told of his continental glory.
At the London Olympics final, he could only finish 12th after injuring his knee during warm-up but nonetheless returned home a hero from his ground breaking achievement at an event Kenya had previously failed to ignite.
“It was fantastic; I was just feeling proud to have made the finals. It was my dream to be at the finals since the start of this year and it really worked as I had planned and I’m happy about my performance.
“I remember before I did my last throw (in qualification), the head coach of Finland called me and told me, ‘Just remember what we said before you went to the stadium, just make 80m and that will be enough for you to make the final’,” Yego summed his London experience.
After the Olympics, Yego made his Diamond League (DL) debut in the tail end of the season at the Zürich final (78.74m/fifth)
Last year, Yego increased his international experience, first with a three-meet tour in far-East Asia which included his second DL outing in Shanghai (78.23m) in May, then recorded two marks over 80m in Europe in June (80.43m in Prague and 81.79 in Turku).
Back on home soil for the National Championships on 21 June, his effect on his compatriots keen to follow in his footsteps was felt when three other athletes joined him in posting efforts that sailed above 70 metres.
This was the first time this had ever happened in the country’s history as 18-year old Alex Kiprotich (72.73 metres) and Fred Kogo (71.40 metres) recorded career bests while 2008 Africa bronze winner, Sammy Keskeny (70.25m) the second mark of his career.
A few weeks later at the Trials for the Moscow Worlds, Yego once again smashed his national record and adjusted it to 82.09m at the high elevation of Nairobi.
His success story saw him become a favourite interview subject, with US cable news giant, CNN, among those who sent crews to Kenya to interview the YouTube Man.
In Moscow, another NR was not enough to propel him to the podium after losing bronze to home star Dmitry Tarabin on the very last throw but yet again, he returned home a celebrated star of the team that wrought five gold medals before sewing up the season with a fifth finish (82.46m) at the Brussels Diamond League final in September, the last of his three outings after the Worlds.
After his Moscow heartbreak, Yego gathered himself to spear his way to more acclaim in 2014 at the quadrennial Club Games in Scotland where he competed not as a rank outsider but a favourite to underline his stature.
His build-up to Glasgow saw among others, polished performances in the Diamond League in Shanghai (fourth/83.00m) in May and the Bislett Games in Oslo where he just missed out on victory when his 84.17m best throw lost out to his idol, Pitkamaki by only a metre in June as Yego wrapped another national crown (80.02m) a week before his heroics in Norway, the spiritual home of the Javelin.
Lining up for the Commonwealth final in August, Yego suffered a scare during warm up but he held it together,
“It was especially hard as I got injured in the warm up but I kept going,” he said.
The conditions were far from perfect with heavy downpour but Yego kept his focus. “There was a lot of rain but no wind which helped. It’s tricky when you throw in the rain and the body gets cold bit we had a good competition and three throwers threw over 80 metres which is quite a feat.”
It was his 83.87 top effort that completed a stunning and comprehensive victory over Trinidad and Tobago’s Olympics champion, Keshorn Walcott (82.67m) and Hamish Peacock of Australia (81.75m), with Yego’s performance earning praise from none other than Kenya’s Head of State, President Uhuru Kenyatta.
“News of your achievement has come as a great delight to all of us here. All your hard work, commitment and practice have paid off,” Kenyatta said in hailing the Javelin star.
“It’s a dream come true. At last, I have gotten what I wanted which was to be a champion of a big event. I had won the All African Games but this was the big one.
“You know as a man you have to fight and I have fought long and hard for this and this is the moment I was fighting for and I have gold,” he said of his Glasgow triumph.
And he was not done yet. Yego prevailed over another stern challenge from Egypt’s sensation Ihab Abdelrahman (83.59) barely a fortnight later to retain his African title with a 84.72m SB to earn inclusion in Africa’s team for the World Cup.
A fourth finish (84.71) at the Zurich Diamond League final towards the end of the month meant he would have to wait to win a Diamond Trophy but it placed him in good stead for more history in Marrakech.