Despite the withdrawal due to injury of reigning three-time women’s short race champion Edith Masai from the 33rd edition of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in St Etienne/St Galmier, France, March (19-20), the Kenyan team is bursting with a combination of youthfulness and experience, and is ready to wrest World Cross glory from the hands of their neighbours Ethiopia.
Masai twisted her ankle on the eve of the National Trials on 11 February and could not heal in time for the World Cross Country. The announcement that she had withdrawn from the team initially dented the atmosphere in the camp and of the athletics loving public.
However, after spending three weeks at the Kigari Teachers Training College in Embu on the foot of Africa's second tallest mountain, Mt Kenya, under the tuition of three coaches, Julius Korir, David Leting and John Mwithiga, the team is positive that it will be good enough to perform well in France.
WOMEN – Yator’s youth – Ochichi’s experience
World Junior women’s 3000m champion Jebichi Yator (6km) who is 16 years old today epitomises the youthful verve of the team, while Athens Olympics women’s 5000m silver medallist Isabella Ochichi (8km) and Catherine Kirui (8km), who finished third in the now defunct IAAF Cross Challenge back in 1994/95, encapsulate the experience that the women’s squad also boasts.
Ochichi won bronze in the short race in Dublin in 2002 and was nipped at the line by Jane Gakunyi for third the following year in Lausanne. She has moved up, and says she is now equally at home in the long race.
The season's biggest find is Rose Chepchumba (8km), who surprised virtually everybody, except herself, by winning the 8km senior women's race at the Kenyan trials.
"I want to win a medal for myself and my country. That is my prayer," confirmed Chepchumba, who trains at the Kapsait High Altitude Training Centre in the highlands of Marakwet, the home of steeplechase legend Moses Kiptanui.
The other biggest discovery was Veronica Nyarwai, a junior who has won every race she has participated in since the cross country season started last November, including the national trials. Little wonder that she and Priscah Jepleting (4km) won the Sh 1million (US$12,500) season’s Jackpot, courtesy of Athletics Kenya. Nyarwai should give a good account of herself and make her debut on the international scene a memorable one.
Fellow team member Jebet Lagat has been under intense personal pressure recently given that her husband Kenneth Cheruiyot, 31, was standing accused of murder. Thankfully Cheruiyot, a former Rotterdam Marathon champion, has now been was released from prison after the court dismissed the charges against him.
MEN – Kipchoge the jewel
The men are equally well-prepared and rearing to go. Augustine Choge, World Junior 5000m and World Youth 3000m champion, will lead the junior squad but Hosea Macharnyang and Moses Masai are equally good young talents.
Isaac Songok, the leader of the senior 4km men's team, who is Choge's training partner at Brother Colm O'Connell's St Patrick's Iten School, is very strong and hungry for a World Cross medal.
However, fellow short race squad member, Olympic 3000m steeplechase silver medallist Brimin Kipruto looks to be suffering from an injury.
The jewel in the crown of the Kenyan team is of course reigning World 5000m champion, Eliud Kipchoge, the Olympic bronze medalist, who will contest the long race in France.
According to coaches, the team was selected after continuous painstaking assessment and they are positive that they will reclaim the overall team title.
Omulo Okoth (The Standard) for IAAF