NAIROBI, Kenya, Aug 31 – It was, without question, one of the performances of the Games, but his story doesn’t end there. No, that’s just where it starts.
It was Wednesday morning, 17 August, and Conseslus Kipruto – 21 years old, as fast as he is fearless – had just run the legs off his rivals to win Olympic gold in the men’s 3000m steeplechase, coming home in splendid isolation in 8:03.28.
It was an Olympic record achieved with almost comical ease – Kipruto was already celebrating as he turned for home – and afterwards, as he was lapping up some well-deserved plaudits, the question was put to him.
Can you break the world record?
“Yes,” said Kipruto with no hesitation. “The world record is on my mind. It depends on pacemakers, but I will try in Brussels. I think I can.”
The current mark stands at 7:53.63 to Bahrain’s Saif Saeed Shaheen, who ran into the record books at the King Baudouin Stadium in 2004, the same venue in which Kipruto will chase history on the final stop of the IAAF Diamond League on Friday 9 September.
So far this year, his races have been splendid renditions of steeplechase supremacy, but he’s ready for one last electrifying encore.
His rise to the throne has been swift, but for many, inevitable. However, the event he has come to regard with such affection was not, in fact, his first love.
That was the 1500m.
Kipruto finished third in that event at his local high school championships as a teenager, but only the top two advanced to the provincial championships.
But his heartbreak soon turned to hope. Due to a lack of steeplechase barriers, the event was never held that day, so two spots were still open for whoever wanted them at the provincial championships.
Kipruto was the first to put his hand in the air, and not only did he win the event at provincial level, he went on to conquer the rest of Kenya at the national schools championships.
In 2011, his star ascended to international level when he won the world U18 title in Lille, and Kipruto was earmarked as an athlete with the physical gifts to maintain Kenya’s stranglehold on the steeplechase.
In 2012 he was world U20 champion, and the following year he won silver at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow. As he soon learned, however, success at senior level would require considerably more commitment.
“He was successful at a very young age, so he got a bit relaxed about some things. In 2014 he was carrying a bit of weight, maybe only two or three kilos, but that’s a lot for the amount of weight those guys have. In 2014 and 2015 he had small injuries in his hamstring and back, and he realised he should be more professional,” says his manager, Michel Boeting.
Finding his focus
When the calendar ticked over to 2016 – Olympic year – Kipruto knuckled down like never before.
“He turned a button on in January,” says Boeting. “He did a lot of exercises last year to correct his injuries. At the start of this year he was fully healthy, and he got serious again.”
Kipruto emerged in the summer in imposing form, taking wins in Doha, Rabat, Rome, Birmingham and Monaco, which means that heading into Brussels, he has built an unassailable lead in the Diamond Race.
All summer, though, Rio loomed on the horizon to the west, like a sunset he couldn’t look away from, lit up in radiant light with that colour he couldn’t stop thinking about: gold.
To get it, Kipruto would have to depose the man who had ruled the steeplechase for the best part of a decade, Ezekiel Kemboi, who had outkicked him to win the previous two World Championships.
“Kemboi told me it would be his last race and he was going to win,” recalls Kipruto. “He usually destroys somebody’s mind but I told him, ‘okay, let the track show who is the king’. I didn’t give him a chance.”
Though Kemboi’s range of gears is renowned, Kipruto, unknown to many, has lightning speed for a steeplechaser.
Shortly before the World Championships last year, his manager watched him complete a workout on a synthetic track in Nairobi alongside Alfred Kipketer, an 800m specialist who trains under the same coach.
With a long recovery between each rep, the pair ran 400m in 47 seconds, 300m in 34, 200m in 22 and 150m in 16. “The guy is fast,” says Boeting. “Let me tell you, he is really fast.”
At previous championships, however, Kipruto’s fitness had not allowed him to utilise his speed on the last lap, and given how he ruled the paced races on the circuit this year, he decided a test of strength would be best.
The moment the gun fired in the Olympic Stadium, Kipruto shot to the front. With temperatures rising into the thirties at the time of the final, his move ensured it would prove a gruelling test of strength.
“In warmup I told my teammates I am going to set the pace so you can follow me,” says Kipruto, who passed the 1000m mark in 2:41.64.
Hot on his heels was Evan Jager of the US, another athlete who flourished off a strong gallop, and he took over in the second kilometre and passed 2000m in 5:25.82.
Kemboi surged to the front on the penultimate lap, but it was a move Kipruto accepted, preferring to be in the position of hunter as they approached the bell.
“The way he ran was very clever,” says Boeting. “He let Kemboi in front so he could decide when to move. He likes that change of rhythm in races.”
On the back straight, Kipruto powered away from both Kemboi and Jager, drawing out such a lead that when he rounded the final turn, he was ready to start the celebrations there and then.
“I looked up at the screen and I saw they were far from me, so I said: why not start celebrating?” said Kipruto. “That’s when the happiness hit me, and for the last 100 metres I knew I was the champion.”
Race against time
And now, having reached the summit of his sport, only one challenge remains: seven-and-a-half laps around the Brussels track, 35 barriers to clear, and less than eight minutes to do it.
Kipruto’s PB still stands at 8:00.12, but those closest to him – and those who have watched him run world-class fields into submission throughout the season – believe he can go much, much faster.
“He’ll probably go to 2000m in 5:16,” says Boeting. “Then the world record is possible, and that’s what he’s been talking about.”
So far, the story of his Olympic year has been a roaring success. All he wants now is a fairytale ending.