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Updated 1 March 2011
Linet Chepkwemoi MASAI, OGW, Kenya (3000m/5000m/10,000m, Cross)
Born 5 December, 1989, Bugaa village, Kapsakwony, Mt Elgon District, Rift Valley Province
Manager: Ricky Simms
Team: Kenya Police (Rank: Corporal)
Superlatives are almost running out to describe Linet Masai - and she is only 21! The long-limbed Kenya Police corporal has flowered to be one of the most lethal female distance running weapons in her country’s armoury.
Thanks to her blessed legs, Masai is already a World Champion, a recipient of the prestigious Order of Grand Warrior of Kenya (OGW) state honour, Kenya’s Sportswoman of the Year (2009), Race Results Weekly (RRW) magazine Runner of the Year (2009) and was promoted to the rank of Corporal in the country’s police force.
Since shooting to instant fame at the 2007 World Cross, in Mombasa, where she won the junior women’s gold, Masai has also raced to senior World Cross bronze (Edinburgh 2008) and two silvers (Amman 2009 and Bydgoszcz 2010) medals. At her first Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, Masai finished a credible fourth in a World junior record time of 30:26.50.
At the Berlin World Championships, Masai’s young career celebrated what could be the first of many outdoor track global titles when she glided past Ethiopia’s celebrated and fancied runner Meseret Defar for the 10,000m gold medal in one of the shock performances of the 12th Worlds.
If she quit the sport today, she would exit as one of the most remarkable female distance runners of her time, but thankfully for the sport, Masai is determined to see her trade to its logical conclusion.
“How many more titles do you think you can win in your career?” FoA posed as she prepared for Bydgoszcz World Cross last year. “As many as I can. I plan to keep running and winning through the distances, get medals or records all the way to the marathon,” was the terse reply.
For the last five years, the soft spoken but genial youngster, born in the strife hit Kapsokwony, Mt Elgon District, has been her country’s most consistent challenger to the might of the Ethiopians at global competitions.
She is the second part of the Masai family trilogy of athletics (see also biography on Moses Ndiema Masai). The fourth born in family of six was lured into athletics by her elder brother Moses, who did the 5,000m/10,000m double at the 2005 African Junior Championships. Younger brother, Dennis Masai, has strung good performances at local cross country meetings and finally earned his first selection to Kenyan team for the 2010 World Junior Championships in Moncton, Canada where he became the seventh holder of the men 10,000m junior gold from his nation, forged with 27:53.88 on the clock which was a World junior leading mark at the time.
"I saw my brother run and win two gold medals in 2005 and I thought maybe I could also run like him,” Linet explained. “He was doing well, and helping our family, and I thought I could also do just as well if I could start running."
Masai attended Kapsagom Primary School before joining Bishop Okiring Kamneru for her Secondary education in 2002. It was in high school that she took baby steps in the sport, reaching National Secondary Schools cross country finals as well as at 5000m. "I would run up to the nationals but never won at that level," she said.
She broke into the Kenyan team for the first time in February 2007 after finishing fourth at the World Cross Trials. At the world event in Mombasa, with temperatures reaching 38 degrees and 96 per cent humidity, Linet made her name.
After being trampled and falling in the frenetic start, she picked herself up and started powering her way up the field. Masai was just about to sprint past compatriots Veronica Nyaruai, and Mercy Kosgei when the bell went a lap too early, but they prevailed upon her to desist from a mistaken sprint for the tape.
Masai then calmly joined her teammates and, after race leader Pauline Korikwiang dropped out, a victim of the mistaken bell, the Kenyan trio went past and with 200m to go, Masai broke clear for the gold. She had won a World title at the very first attempt in incredibly difficult circumstances.
After her win in Mombasa, she turned to track but struggled to translate her World Cross form. "It was my first year on track and I was inexperienced,” she said. “Track is different and it took quite a while for me to feel at home."
She finished fourth (15:59.66) at the 5,000m Trials for the Osaka World Championships and was not selected to the Kenyan team.
Linet then returned to Europe and recorded seasonal bests of 14:55.50 (5,000m) and 8:38.97 (3,000m) in Stockholm and Rieti. At her maiden World Athletics Final, in Stuttgart, she recorded successive fourth place finishes in 5,000m (15:02.74) and 3,000m (8:42.54) to highlight her 2007 track campaign.
Her 2007-2008 cross country season began in France, with fourth place at the Fontenay- Les-Briis 4.4km race in November, before she recorded back-to-back wins in Leffrinckrouke and Geneva.
Linet was then forced to miss her first race of 2008, the Belfast International Cross on 5 January, as a result of the chaos that visited her country after bungled elections, but recovered to place second at the rehearsal event for the World Cross at the annual Edinburgh Cross Country a week later, following up with more wins in Le Mans and Hannut.
At Kenya’s Cross Country Trials, Linet opted to seek a ticket in the women’s senior 8km race despite being eligible to defend her junior title, and she finished second behind Grace Momanyi to book her slot. At the Edinburgh World Cross, Masai fought back into the race to win bronze behind the Ethiopian duo of Tirunesh Dibaba and Mestawet Tufa.
Having given the African Championships, a miss, Linet started her outdoor track season on 24 May in Hengelo, where she ran her season’s best in 5,000m of 14:47.14 for fourth.
She then suffered a setback after sustaining a foot injury while training for the Kenya Police Championships. In June, at the Golden Spike meet in Ostrava, she attained the Olympic qualifying time in 10,000m after clocking 31:14.98 to finish seventh.
At the Beijing Trials in July, Masai ran 32:49.35 for sixth in the 10,000m selection race after uncharacteristically fading towards the end but she was nonetheless included in the country’s squad.
At her first ever Olympics final, Linet clocked a World junior record time of 30:26.50 for fourth as the first Kenyan across the line. “I felt proud of what I had achieved,” Masai said of her Olympics outing. “It was a fantastic experience and I wish to return to the same great event in London (2012 Olympics).”
On her second appearance at the World Athletics Final, in Stuttgart, she returned fifth in 3000m (8:49.66) and fourth in 5000m (14:58.88). Her year best over 3,000m was achieved at British Grand Prix in Gateshead on August 31 where she took third.
Her build-up for the 2008/2009 season included four wins on the European circuit namely in Llodio, Alcobendas and Amorebieta, all in Spain, as well as the Edinburgh International Cross. Expected to run away with the senior women’s race at the Kenyan Trials for the Amman World Cross, Masai emerged third after winner Florence Kiplagat and runner-up Iness Chenonge sprinted clear in the dash for the tape.
Her siblings, Olympic 10,000m finisher Moses and Dennis, did not make the national team with the elder placing 95th in the men’s long race and the younger 30th in the junior 8km men’s event. “It was not their day during the trials,” she explained. “Moses was carrying an injury while Dennis’ body refused to respond to the intensity of competition. I know that, one day, we shall all run together in the same team.”
At the Amman World Cross, Linet was already savouring the prospect of her best hour in her short career – aiming to be only the second Kenyan female athlete to win senior women 8km gold since Helen Chepng’eno’s triumph in 1994 - after taking charge of proceedings in the second half of the race and breaking away from the field.
However, she and indeed the rest of the field did not envisage Kiplagat, the 2006 World Junior 5,000m silver medallist, who was returning to international competition after more than a season’s absence, engaging the devastating sprint at the final hill that torpedoed her to victory ahead of Linet.
“To be honest, I thought I had done enough to win. I did not see her coming, what I saw was the finish line but it was not to be. I had mixed feelings after the race. On one hand, I lost gold but on the other, we had finally won the senior title after so many years and I had silver, that felt good,” she said.
On the track, Masai displayed a level of form that installed her as a medal favourite for Berlin. First she upset the seemingly invincible double Olympic champion, Tirunesh Dibaba (14:35.39 against the Ethiopian’s 14:40.93) over 5,000m in New York on 30 May, then she followed up with a personal best of 14:34.36 in that distance at the Ostrava Golden Spike meeting, where she lost first place by a few kicks to in-form African champion, Meselech Melkamu.
On 26 June, Masai clocked 32:49.3 at a pedestrian pace women’s 10,000m Berlin Trials at the New KCC/AK National Championships at Nyayo Stadium for victory, running unchallenged for the last three laps. She was consequently named and confirmed in Kenya’s team, to make her World Championships debut.
After initially being confirmed by Athletics Kenya as the sole runner in the women’s 10,000m team for Berlin, World Cross senior champion, Florence Kiplagat, and African 5000m bronze medallist, Grace Momanyi, were granted wildcard selection in the 25 laps race at the conclusion of the 25 July Kenya Trials.
“We saw it would be unfair for Linet to compete against the Ethiopians alone at the World Championships, and coaches recommended to AK to include Grace and Florence, I believe now we have a strong team to take on our rivals since Linet has runners she can work with,” new national head coach, Peter Mathu, explained,
"I will try to handle them (Ethiopians) in Berlin. I’m more experienced now and although I cannot say I will beat Dibaba or any of them at the World Championships, I’m happy with the way my career is shaping," Masai said before travelling to Germany. To beat Kenya’s biggest adversaries, Masai revealed, "You have to start pushing early and run strong since they can finish you with their kick and that requires serious training."
For 12 years, Kenyan best female athletes had tried all they could to find the fitting spikes to run to the women’s 10,000m World title but in ‘Cinderella’ Masai as one local media outlet christened her the matching feet were finally unearthed.
As the race came to its thrilling climax, Masai found an awesome burst of energy in the last 20m to scale the heights as the new queen of world 10,000m running in 30:51.24*.
Controversy over the actual distance covered, since some runners, including herself, cut into the inside lane too quickly due to lack of marking cones at the start, did not deny Masai what she rightfully deserved. Celebrations reverberated from the disbelieving Kenyan contingent in Berlin, through her country’s capital Nairobi and into her Bugaa village in Mt Elgon.
"I thank God for enabling my children, Linet and Moses Masai (Berlin bronze at 10,000m) to perform well at the championships," her mother, Leonida Cherop said at the time. Cherop disclosed that through her children’s hard work on their careers, the former peasant farming family had managed to put up two permanent houses at the homestead, bought some dairy cows, two acres of land in Mt Elgon and another 100 acres in neighbouring Trans Nzoia District.
The grandfather, Japheth Ngeiywa was full of praise for his grandchildren for following the footsteps of legendary athlete Ben Jipcho (Olympics steeplechase silver, Munich 1972), who is a distant uncle. "I followed the race on television and it really gave me pride when I realised it was my granddaughter who beat the rest while her brother also managed to bring glory," Ngeiywa recalled.
On her return home, (she skipped the Thessaloniki World Athletics Final), Masai was feted like a queen as accolades began rolling in. At the prestigious blue-riband Kenyan Sports Personality of the Year Awards, she succeeded Olympics 800m champion, Pamela Jelimo as Sportswoman of the Year. RRW, the world’s most comprehensive source of middle and long distance running results and news, gave her female Runner of the Year recognition.
As her country celebrated its 46th Independence Day (12 December), Kenya’s President, Mwai Kibaki made her one of the youngest recipients of the OGW (Disciplined Forces Division) honour. In January, Kenya Police promoted her to Corporal.
Her 2009-2010 began with Cross Country victories in Sevilla, Llodio and Soria (all in Spain) and a second finish to fellow Berlin winner (5,000m) Vivian Cheruiyot at Kenya Police Cross Championships.
At the beginning of 2010, her highly anticipated half marathon debut at January’s Zayed Half Marathon in Abu Dhabi was quashed by Athletics Kenya (AK) over her young age. “We cannot allow our young runners especially female athletes to participate in half or full marathons. They could burn out very quickly. We want to protect Masai who has a long future ahead of her in the sport,” AK chief, Isaiah Kiplagat said then.
“I do not wish to comment on that since it passed but how old was (Samuel) Wanjiru when he set the (men) World half marathon record?” was Masai’s response. For the record, Wanjiru was 18 when he first broke Haile Gebreselassie’s record to set 58:53 in 2006. He slashed it further to 58:33 where it stood a year later. (Note: The World record was subsequently improved to 58.23 by Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese on 21 March 2010.)
Without Cheruiyot, who opted for the World Indoors, Masai had no peer at the National Cross Championships cum Bydgoszcz Trials, easily winning the 8K race despite losing a shoe midway through the race to book her place at the World Cross Country event in Poland.
The 2009 World Cross silver winner then headed to Bydgoszcz for the unfinished business of claiming the medal she felt was due to her in Amman. “To date, I still feel the gold was mine. Even without Kiplagat (out injured), it will be difficult with the Ethiopians (double Olympic champion, Tirunesh Dibaba in particular) out to also get their revenge. But I’m not worried about them or anyone else, I will go there and run my race, only that I will check where everyone else is, unlike last year,” she stated then.
In Poland, there would be a repeat of 2009 as she again led for long periods going into the final lap, looked the odds-on favourite to win gold. But borrowing a leaf from Kiplagat in Amman a year earlier, Emily Chebet staged a valiant chase of the runaway leader sprinting past her just metres from the finishing tape as Masai looked on in disbelief. And so for the second year running, the then 20-year old had to be content with silver as Kenya swept the boards.
Masai then turned her attention to the track running a personal best in 5000m (14:31.14) as she finished second at the Diamond League meet in Shanghai on May 23. Three weeks later she ran another personal best - this time in a 10K road race in New York posting 30:48 as she won the event on June 12.
Then it was time to turn back her attention to the national trials used to select the team for African Athletics Championships, where she again easily outclassed the rest of the field to win in a seasonal best time of 32:03.85 to book her place in the national squad.
A 3000 metres seasonal best followed in Lausanne 8:41.37 before Masai travelled back to Nairobi to prepare for the continental battle.
During the 10000m decider, not even the raucous home crowd could to lift her to upstage Ethiopia’s double Olympic champion Tirunesh Dibaba, who together with compatriot Meselech Melkamu, shadowed Masai for the better of the last ten laps, eased past the leader at the bell, and hared away for the top two medals leaving the Kenyan to settle for bronze in a season’s best 31:59.36A.
“I knew it was all over when the Ethiopians were the only ones left with three laps to go. When I accelerated to split the field, it only killed my team mates, not the Ethiopians as I had intended and this shows we need to look for other female runners to be helping me,” she stated.
Returning to the Diamond League circuit, Masai placed fifth in London and second in Brussels at 5000m before winning the Adidas 5km road race in London at the beginning of September.
She earned selection to her country’s Delhi Commonwealth Games team, but declined citing fatigue. Masai closed her year with victory at the Escalade road race in Geneva in early December.
Victory in her 2011 opening cross country race (8 January) in Edinburgh and second place in Sevilla (16 January) set her up for the 19 February IAAF Permit/KCB National Cross Country selection event for the Punta Umbria World Cross.
Masai held off fellow Berlin world champion, Vivian Cheruiyot (5000m) to book her ticket for Spain ahead of all in 26:20.5 during the intense women’s long race. Again, her World Cross heartache was not very far off, with Masai stating after the race, “What has happened in the last two years still pains me. God has given me a third chance and I have been training for my finishing. Today, I was nervous with Vivian in the race, but what I have been working on worked since I was able to do the sprint. I hope to maintain this in Spain and hope it’s finally my turn.”
Once again, Masai found herself at AK’s cross hairs when she was ordered to not compete at the World Best 10k race in San Juan (27 February) and instead report to the national team’s training camp, blowing an opportunity to earn $100,000 (Ksh8m) for victory.
Masai’s role model is four-time Boston Marathon champion, and two-time World marathon champion, Catherine Ndereba. "She runs well and has dominated and I hope to one day follow her footsteps in marathon once I am done with track," Masai says.
2000m: 5:33.43 (2009)
3000m: 8:38.97 (2007)
5000m: 14:31.14 (2010)
10,000m: 30:26.50 WJR (2008)
3000m: 2007- 8:38.97; 2008 - 8:43.14; 2009- 8:45.22; 2010-8:41.37
5000m: 2007 - 14:55.50; 2008 - 14:47.14; 2009 - 14:34.36; 2010 - 14:31.14
10,000m: 2008 - 30:26.50; 2009 - 32:49.3; 2010-31:59.36A
2007 1st World Cross Country Championships (junior)
2007 4th World Athletics Final, 3000m
2007 4th World Athletics Final, 5000m
2008 3rd World Cross Country Championships (senior)
2008 4th Olympics, Beijing (10,000m)
2008 5th World Athletics Final (3000m)
2008 4th World Athletics Final (5000m)
2009 2nd World Cross Country Championships (senior)
2009 1st World Championships in Athletics (10000m)
2010 2nd World Cross Country Championships (senior)
2010 3rd African Athletics Championships (10000m)
Prepared by James Wokabi and Mutwiri Mutuota for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2008-2011