Updated 12 July 2012
PAMELA JELIMO, Kenya (800m)
Born: 5 December 1989, Koyo Location, Kapsabet, Nandi district
1.73m / 58kg
Coach: Ben Englehardt
Team: Kenya Police/ Golazo Sports
Manager: Marc Corstjens (Golazo)
Marital status: Married to Peter Kiprotich Murrey (25), a budding 800m athlete.
Pandemonium greeted the return of Pamela Jelimo, 19, on the night of 16 September, 2008 when she jetted back to her country of birth after a barnstorming season that saw the teenager rise from an unknown entity to the most decorated Kenyan 800m female runner.
A nation not used to such outpouring of celebratory emotion came for what a local newspaper dubbed, “the beginning of her coronation.”
The next day, the bemused athlete who was taken aback by the roaring reception as Kenya slipped into Jelimo-mania, was shaking hands with the most powerful men in her country, President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister, Raila Odinga in the former’s office.
“He (Kibaki) told me that I had done well and asked me to improve even more and go back to school,” Jelimo said on her moment with Kenya’s leader.
A couple of days later, the crown princess of women’s 800m running landed in the Kenyan Rift Valley town of Eldoret for her homecoming party. To date, even at the height of the charged election campaigns of 2007, nothing of such magnitude has ever been witnessed in the town and along the route to her Kiptamok Village, Koyo location home.
Hundreds of thousands turned up along the route, blocking her convoy of 200 vehicles and at some point, there were plans to airlift her to her home as surging crowds sang her praise. Kapsabet Township, where she trains, 47km from Eldoret, erupted as she cut the tape to Jelimo Street, a road leading to the stadium where she does her paces. At her home, a crowd of 10,000 feasted on ten bulls, tonnes of rice and bales of flour.
“Three months ago (June 2008), she said bye to us and boarded an old matatu (public transport vehicle) with just a small bag to Nairobi. Now, she’s returned with all this! It’s a miracle,” a village mate summed.
That pompous ceremony was in recognition of the fact that never before has an athlete announced her arrival on the biggest stage in such dramatic and thrilling fashion as Jelimo. In a span of a year, the teenage sensation had taken the world by storm with a series of superlative displays that landed her a string of titles changing the entire complexion of world women’s 800m running.
The ‘Kapsabet Express’ a moniker she gained as her list of honours expanded, wheeled (she doesn’t run, one journalist said) to African gold, set the World junior record, then became the first Kenyan female athlete to win Olympics gold in Beijing, ran to the World Athletics Final title and crowned it all by becoming the first Kenyan athlete in history to win the IAAF $1m Golden League jackpot with a perfect six victories.
In her trailblazing debut season she broke the World junior, Africa and national records four times to climax at the current mark of 1:54:01, ran at Zürich’s Golden League Weltklasse Meeting (29 August). So dominant was she that she has already posted faster times than Mozambique legend Maria Mutola – the global dominant force for the better part of more than decade, from the early 1990s into the first part of the new millennium.
What made her achievements even more remarkable is the fact that her first official race of the two-lap event was in only April 2008. It all started at the national trials to select a team for the 2008 African Athletics Championships in mid-April. Lining up for her first ever 800 metres, Jelimo clocked 2:01.02 to book a place in the Addis-bound squad.
In Addis, she breezed through to the final, where she would take on the Maputo Express herself. Jelimo shot to the lead from the start and steadily increased the gap to win in a fast 1:58.70 – an incredible time at altitude as Mutola gasped for second place. “She is something else, I have never seen anything like her,” Mutola observed as Jelimo draped herself with the Kenyan flag for her lap of honour.
“I was running in an event which I did not even think was mine and to win the heat gave me morale. When I beat Mutola in the final, I was overjoyed. It was a morale booster and meant a lot to me. It was the start of a new journey in my life and helped me meet my new manager,” Jelimo said.
Two weeks later, Jelimo lined up in Hengelo for her debut in Europe. Unfazed, she set the then world’s fastest time of 1:55.76 that was also a World Junior record – smashing the previous record set 15 years ago – and a new National record.
“It was easy because I was coming from high altitude and I went in there to get experience, but found myself already winning,” she recalled of her win in Hengelo. A week later, she lined up in the opening race of the IAAF Golden League series, in Berlin, in early June. It also marked the first time she had come face to face with World champion Janeth Jepkosgei.
Jelimo responded by clocking the World’s fastest time for 11 years, becoming the sixth fastest woman of all-time. Her 1:54.99 was also a new World Junior record, African and National record. Next up was the Bislett Games, in Oslo, where she timed 1:55.41 to stay in the hunt for the Golden League jackpot. She then travelled back to Nairobi for the National Trials where she coasted to victory in 1:55.71, the fastest time run on Kenyan soil, to book a place in the squad for the Beijing Olympics.
Returning to Europe for the third round of the Golden League series, at the Golden Gala in Rome on 11 July, Jelimo posted her slowest time of the series (1:55.69) to win but still beat her closest rival by over 3 seconds. One week later, in Paris for the fourth round, Jelimo shifted through the gears in the last lap to smash her own World Junior, African and National record, clocking 1:54.97.
Having won in 1:55.71 at the Kenyan Trials for Beijing (5 July), the fastest time ever run on Kenyan soil (previous quickest was 1:59.00 by Jepkosgei in September 2007) Jelimo donned her country’s strip at Beijing’s Bird Nest on 18 August.
Just like in Kenya’s selection event, Jelimo tore away from Jepkosgei and the chasing pack to enter Kenya’s folklore as the first ever female Olympic gold medallist. Her 1:54.87 winning time was yet another World Junior and African record and ten days later she resumed her pursuit for the GL jackpot at the Zürich GL meeting where she ran 1:54.01, elevating her to the number three position all-time.
At the Memorial Van Damme final GL meeting, Jelimo sailed home victorious in 1:55.16 and conversely Vlasic, who had shared with her five wins each ahead of Brussels, lost to Germany’s Ariane Friedrich. That confirmed her promotion from an unknown to athletics’ Golden Girl as she scooped the $1m series jackpot solo.
“I sympathise for her, but that is the nature of this sport,” Jelimo told the IAAF website of her jackpot rival Vlasic. “Today you lose, but tomorrow you can do your best and be a winner again. And that is what I wish for her.”
Not done, Jelimo crowned her season with a 1:56.23 run at the World Athletics Final, in Stuttgart on 9 September, to remain unbeaten over 800m. A slow time by her very high standards, but still good enough to be a new championship record.
JELIMO AND JEPKOSGEI
Jelimo’s emergence dealt a major blow to Jepkosgei, who had been seen as the heir to retiring Mutola after her fantastic performances of 2007 that saw her unbeaten in seven races topped by clinching the World Championship in Osaka.
Jepkosgei has had to play second fiddle to Jelimo, losing five times to her newfound arch-rival, but the two athletes remained cordial to each other. “I am glad that she has arrived on the scene and now there are two of us challenging for top honours,” Jepkosgei said then. “For long, the 800m race in Kenya had Faith Macharia only, but it is good we are now having more girls join the race.”
They both hail from Kapsabet (their homes are 5km apart) and, despite their intense rivalry on the track; the teenager maintained that she has the utmost respect for the then World champion. “She is my senior, she motivated me and advised me to pick up the 800m race,” Jelimo said, returning the compliment. “Though it looks like there is a revolution, I still look up to her because she showed me the way.”
Coming from Kapsabet, the cradle of 800m athletes in Kenya, Jelimo had many role models in which to follow when growing up, “There is Janeth, Wilfred Bungei and Wilson Kipketer who all hail from my area so I have many role models to look up to,” she said.
JELIMO AND WORLD RECORD
Having clocked the third fastest time ever in her debut season, there was a feeling that the teenager posed a threat to Jarmila Kratochvílová 26-year-old World record of 1:53.28.
“I would like to try for the World record, but it will be tough,” Jelimo said at the end of her breakthrough season. “I will work harder and perhaps I can get it next year, or the year after that,” she told IAAF after her series when clinching victory in Brussels.
Russian Nadezhda Fyodorovna Olizarenko, the 1980 Olympics 800m gold medallist, is the other athlete who has bettered Jelimo’s 1:54.01 effort with a 1:53.83 clocked in the same year as her Olympic triumph.
Jelimo is the fourth-born in a family of nine. Her mother, Rodah Jeptoo Keter, used to run, though not competitively. "During her time there was no motivation in sports," Pamela said of her mom, a single mother of nine.
Hailing from a family of only daughters, Jeptoo was compelled by her community’s tradition to remain unmarried but bear children to carry her family’s name. That saw a number of men emerge to claim they were Jelimo’s father after she shot to prominence. “What I know is that our family is made up of my mom and my brothers and sisters,” Jelimo said dismissing all.
Pamela started running aged 13, before joining Koyo Secondary School in 2003 and reached the 2004 provincials in 400m. In 2005, she reached Nationals in 200 and 400m but did not run in her final year, in 2006. She resumed her track activities with a vengeance, making the African Junior Championships team to Ouagadougou, in July, where she won 400m gold in 54.93 and also set a new National Junior record in 200m (24.68).
Jelimo had always thought of herself as a sprinter but her husband and coaches implored her to change her speciality. She had joined the Kenya Police Force and between September 2007 and January 2008, she was in tough training, alternating between Embu and Kapsabet. Then on 19 April in Nairobi, she lined up for her first 800 metres race and the rest, as they say, is history.
On December 14, an exclusive report carried in a Kenyan newspaper, The Standard, revealed that Jelimo, previously thought to be single, had been happily married for a year. According to the article, Jelimo was married to Peter Kiprotich Murrey, a budding 800m athlete in a civil ceremony towards the end of November 2007. The couple met at the 2006 Kenya Secondary School athletics championships while competing for their respective schools.
Murrey, then her training partner, is responsible for introducing Jelimo to former coach Said Aziz, and aided in persuading her to adopt 800m running. Her husband then took over coaching roles in acting capacity in March 2009 as Golazo, her managers, sought to recruit a group of coaching staff to replace Aziz.
“I love him so much since he is not only my husband but my greatest motivator. He helps me in training, gives me time to be myself and helped me when I had little,” Jelimo said of Peter. “Sometimes, it used to make me feel sad when people said so many things about her when she started winning. But I’m happy and lucky to have her as a wife, best friend and companion,” Peter returned the compliment.
RUN UP TO BERLIN WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS
Jelimo’s 2009 began with her skipping the indoor circuit despite a much-awaited debut in close circuit racing.
"After so much celebration, I started training late (January) and I injured my ankle while exercising. Upon recovery from injury, I resumed my training in March and I decided to test myself in Rabat and things there were bad," Jelimo said. "I then travelled to Oregon and it was even worse. Those performances were very painful, but I took them as something normal and returned home to train," she added.
She was recalling her opening campaigns in Rabat (2:02.46, 23 May) and Eugene (2:05.57, 7 June) where she slumped to sixth and last positions respectively. The results jolted a planet that saw her dictate women’s 800m running last year.
Jelimo bounced back to claim victory in a first sub 2: in Heusden, Belgium, where she ran 1:59.59 on 18 July. "After winning in Belgium, I was very happy to be competing well against my colleagues once again. It made me realise that I am okay. I was sad reading ‘Jelimo has run to the Wooden Spoon’.
"My body is responding well and what I’m working on is to see whether I can be in my (last year’s) shape ahead of Berlin," the teenage two-lap prodigy disclosed.
At the Kenya Trials (25 July), Jelimo engaged a breakaway with 300m to go as the 10,000 strong crowd roared their princess, but she celebrated her supposed win a tad bit too early as the finish line came to view.
Unbeknown to her, World Champion, Jepkosgei, who had earlier in the season vowed to reduce the gap between her and the teenage phenomenon, had also let rip at the final 50m and her momentum carried her across the line just ahead of Jelimo by a wafer thin margin. In finishing second (1:59.49) to Jepkosgei’s 1:59.31, Jelimo still ran a seasonal best.
“My aim was to get to the team and I’m there. I intend to compete in a couple of European races before Berlin as I continue getting my shape. Then we will see,” she disclosed her plans for the World Championships where she hoped to become the second female runner after Mutola (2000 and 2001) to hold the Olympics and World titles simultaneously.
However, no one had prepared for the nightmare that unfolded for Jelimo in Berlin. She duly won her heat, but in the semis gasps filled the Olympiastadion when she dropped out with 600m gone and images of the phenomenon being carried off the track in a stretcher set tongues wagging.
That was to be the last outing for the new star and an attempted comeback in 2010 was also highlighted with another DNF at the Trials for the African Athletics Championships in June, with the 2:01.52 she raced for second at the Colorful Daegu meet on 19 May going down as her year’s standout result.
Jelimo could only be seen on the stands in 2011 at the Trials for the Daegu Worlds, where her only recorded performance in her speciality was an 11th place finish (2:09.12) at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon (4 June) after her rehabilitation involved featuring in a number of local meets including Mombasa and Kakamega in the 400m race.
Jelimo, now fading fast in the memories of distance running enthusiasts, was once again thrust into the national limelight when she posted her first sub 2:00 performance on her indoor debut over two-laps in France where she returned 1:59.10 for second.
She resurfaced to offer her story saying, “I ran so many races at such a high pace. After 2008, I had to recover and my body did not respond as I expected. I trained so hard and all of a sudden I got an injury. I participated in the Kenyan Trials for the 2009 World Championships and ran in Berlin, where I forced myself to run with the injury. After that, I decided to take a break to build my confidence back.”
Jelimo was included in her country’s squad for the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul as the lone entry in her speciality.
“If I will be second or I win (in Istanbul), it does not matter. There are still the Kenyan Trials for the Olympics and I that is where I should cross the line. The London Olympics are coming and they will be tough so I want to be ready. What remains for me now is to build my confidence progressively so that I can be competitive,” she expressed as the pain of three seasons of hurt spread across her face.
Jelimo delivered an emphatic statement that she is something close to her best with a world leading (indoors) 1:58.83 to bag Kenya’s first ever indoor gold in the women’s 800m and 20 minutes later, compatriot Hellen Obiri replicated the fete in the women’s 3000m as she stunned four-time champion, Meseret Defar in 8:37.16 to complete a night of history.
After Istanbul, she propelled herself to a world leading 1:56.94 victory in the opening Diamond League (DL) meeting in Doha (11 May) before breezing to the honours at the Ostrava Golden Spike (1:58.49) on 25 May to confirm her comeback to the top of the women’s two-lap file.
However, six days later, the ‘Kapsabet Express’ saw a haze of yellow, red and green as Ethiopia’s rising prospect, Fantu Magiso, zoomed past the Olympic champion to victory at the Rome Golden Gala DL event.
That compelled Jelimo to review her strategy and work on gaining the finishing burst needed to land her a second Olympics gold.
“I have been performing poorly on speed and that is why I ran the 400m at the Nationals,” she admitted after booking her place in London.
In July, her management Golazo, that brought former University of Arizona athlete graduate, Ben Englehardt as her coach at the back end of 2011, organised a rare 600m race in Belgium where going flat-out, Jelimo clocked a world leading 1:23.35. She followed it up two days later with another great 800m performance in Heusden, where she confirmed her top spot in the World lists, improving her time to 1:56.76. After these last races, coupled with the 52.14 performance over 400m she recorded at the nationals (14 June), the Olympic winner is stocking on the thrust needed to power her to gold.
“I will run my own race, everyone is in shape. I will train harder than usual and I don’t want to be over confident. I feel that I’m getting close to the shape I was in before,” she underlined her London objective.
“Pamela is very determined and ready to return to the top where she feels she belongs. What we are seeing are signs of things to come. I believe the important thing is that she has recovered her mental strength.
“Physically, she is still very strong and there are a few things from her race Belgium we are working on to ensure she retains the intensity she started with,” Engelhart said of his prized charge.
A successful title defence at the London Olympics will place her in a class of one as the only female athlete to win the women 800m title twice.
And it is not beyond her having dared history in Beijing and Istanbul and come out on top.
200m: 24.68 (2007)
400m: 52.14 (2012)
800m: 1:54.01 (2008)
800m: 2008: 1:54.97; 2009: 1:59.49; 2010- 2:01.52; 2011-2:09.12; 2012-1:56.76
2007 1st Africa Junior Championships, Ouagadougou (400m)
2007 7th African Junior Championships, Ouagadougou (200m)
2008 1st African Athletics Championships, Addis Ababa (800m)
2008 1st Olympics Games, Beijing (800m)
2008 1st World Athletics Final, Stuttgart (800m)
2009 SF World Championships
2012 1st World Indoor Championships (800m)
Prepared by James Wokabi and Mutwiri Mutuota for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2008-2012