At the pre-meet press conference here on Friday (27) before Saturday’s New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, the moderator asked all the athletes about their New Year’s resolutions. Some were serious (“I’m hand-writing at least one letter a month”), some were flip (“I resolved to have more animals in my life”), so when Paul Chelimo announced that his resolution was to not lose any races, it was a little difficult to tell if he was being serious.
At Saturday’s IAAF World Indoor Tour meeting, he showed that he was.
Chelimo ran assertively near the front of the chase pack in the men’s 3000m, controlling the pace and allowing Lawi Lalang to run from the front and burn himself off. Then, when Lalang was finished with just over two laps remaining, Chelimo moved to the front and successfully defied anyone to get past him. He crossed the line in 7:42.39, not what he’d hoped for but not far adrift from his PB of 7:39.00. Then he snapped off a salute to the flag hanging high on the arena wall.
Running is not, formally, Paul Kipkemoi Chelimo’s full-time profession. Chelimo is a specialist in the US Army, assigned to the Army’s World Class Athlete Program (WCAP). The mission of the WCAP is to win Olympic medals, and Chelimo performed that mission better than anyone last year. He earned silver in the 5000m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, running a near-perfect final for a 13:03.90 PB – and the Olympic final is the best possible race to run a PB.
Step back another year. In 2015 Chelimo was 11th at the US Championships, far off from his goal of a berth on the team to Beijing. “I was heartbroken,” he says. “After that, I was waking up to make the Olympic team.”
2016 breakout campaign
Nearly everything in 2016 turned out better. First Chelimo picked up a spot for the IAAF World Indoor Championships Portland 2016 after finishing second at the US Indoor Championships. He reached the final in Portland where he finished seventh.
At the Olympic Trials, Chelimo bid for the win and almost pulled it off, but was out-kicked first by the apparently ageless Bernard Lagat and then narrowly by Hassan Mead; Eric Jenkins came within hundredths of a second of snatching Chelimo’s ticket to Rio.
Finally, in Rio, there was a break: Chelimo won his qualifying round of the 5000m. The five automatic qualifiers in the second heat came in within half a second, starting with Chelimo’s 13:19.54. In the final he ran like the fastest qualifier. “I felt really good,” he says now. “I was ready to go for gold.
“Holding the flag was an amazing moment in my life. I can’t ever take that for granted.”
Transition from student-athlete to soldier-athlete
The road to Chelimo holding that particular flag in Rio is a story in itself.
A native Kenyan, Chelimo came to the USA in 2010 to attend college, starting at Shorter College in Georgia, which at the time competed in the NAIA, an intercollegiate association of smaller universities. Chelimo won several NAIA titles and led Shorter to two team titles.
He also saw a flyer in the gym looking for students to referee student football games. When he showed up, he recalls with a grin, they asked him if he knew what a 'snap' was. Chelimo said sure, snapping his fingers, and was immediately sent packing; he had forgotten that 'football' means something different in the US than it does in the rest of the world. (In Boston, where the New England Patriots approach the status of religion, Chelimo was asked his opinion of the upcoming Super Bowl; he explained that he wouldn’t be watching unless Manchester United was playing.)
After a successful two years at Shorter, Chelimo transferred to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he took second in both the 2012 and 2013 NCAA Championships 5000m. (Third place in 2012 and first in 2013, notably, went to Lawi Lalang.)
In 2014, after finishing his degree in public health in Greensboro, Chelimo took the unusual step of joining the Army WCAP, where he is advised by Dan Browne, himself an alumnus of the WCAP and an Olympian at 10,000m and the marathon in 2004. Browne helped Chelimo make the leap from the NCAA to professional-grade competition, and once through basic training, the army kept Chelimo from needing to worry about basic nutrition and a roof over his head.
Chelimo is listed as a 'water purification specialist', which was one of his interests in university, but he explains that his primary activity is what the army calls TSET, for Total Soldier Enhancement Training. The army describes TSET as “elite level, peer-based, soldier-led training... [to] expose soldiers to mental skills training that sets the conditions for more consistent and high levels of performance.”
By joining the army, Chelimo also short-circuited the lengthy residency requirements for US citizenship.
“My main job is being a soldier,” Chelimo says. “I see each day’s run as a privilege. I’m learning every day.”
When it comes to racing, however, Chelimo takes a more territorial view. Seated next to Clayton Murphy, a bronze medallist in the 800m in Rio touted as a potential rival for the 3000m, Chelimo stated: “I’m saying to Clayton, you’re coming to my home. When I go to 800m, I’ll come with respect. But now you’re coming to me.”
The message was delivered with a smile, but it was clear enough: Paul Chelimo has seen what winning looks like. He likes it. And he intends to do a lot more of it.
Parker Morse for the IAAF