John Manners for IAAF
Looking at his face as he drove for the finish line in the men's 4km in Vilamoura, it's hard to imagine that John Kibowen ever quailed under pressure. His features were set in fierce resolve as he held his lead through the tape, giving the impression of a man who would refuse to yield under any circumstances. But yield he did three years ago in his first major international championship.
It was the 1997 World Athletics Championships in Athens, and Kibowen, who had broken brilliantly into the top ranks of middle distance men with a 3:30.44 1500m and a 3:47.88 mile earlier in the season, was one of the favorites for a medal in the 1500m. Instead, he finished an ignominious 9th in his heat and failed to advance. "I was still new," he says now. "It was my first time in a championship, and there was..." he hesitates as if he can't quite bring himself to say it, then: "There was fear."
Seven months later, after some painful reflection and a lot of hard training, the fear was gone. Kibowen was in his second international championship, the 1998 World Cross in Marrakech, where he was to run in the inaugural race at the 4K distance. He was matched against his Kenyan team-mate, Daniel Komen, who had won the 5,000m in Athens and had just set two world indoor records a month before the cross country championships. The two entered the home straight sharing the lead, and knowledgeable spectators were waiting for Komen to pull away. Instead, it was Kibowen who accelerated, suddenly shifting gears and moving clear of his rival within a few strides to take his first international gold medal.
Last year, as he trained for a defence of his title in Belfast, Kibowen developed a stress fracture which kept him from running a step from February to November. But on the evidence of his powerful front-running performance in Vilamoura, the rest doesn't seem to have done him any harm.
Like a surprising number of his fellow world-class Kenyans, Kibowen took up running comparatively late. He was 26 when he started serious training in 1996. "I was never serious about running in school," he says. He joined the Air Force after leaving school and was selected for a rigorous five-year technician's course that left him no time for running. By the time he finished the course, however, some of the men he had gone through basic training with had become successful international athletes, among them Joseph Kibor and Ismael Kirui. "I used to be able to beat them when we were running together during basic training," Kibowen recalls. "Now they were famous men. I wanted to see what I could do."
He asked his squadron commander for some time off to train, and within months he was competing successfully in the half-dozen weekend athletics meeting sponsored each year by the Kenya Amateur Athletic Association. It was at one of these that he was spotted by manager Kim McDonald, who signed Kibowen up after he finished second in the 1500m at the 1997 National Championships.
This year on the track Kibowen says he wants to stick to the 1500m and hopes to represent Kenya in that event in the Olympics. Of course, that will mean competing against the likes of Noah Ngeny, William Chirchir and Bernard Lagat just for a spot on the team. When pressed on this point, he says, "I am also comfortable running the 5000. I will go by what my manager says. Should he see the 5000m is better for me, then I will run the 5000m."
In whichever event he chooses, Kibowen will be a formidable threat - one far more likely to inspire fear in opponents than to experience it himself.