Helen Chepngeno of Kenya, no.222, winner of the women's race at 1994 World Cross Country Championships in Budapest, Hungary (Getty Images) © Copyright
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A Kenyan XC legend - Helen Chepngeno

Helen Chepngeno will be remembered as the first Kenyan woman to win the long course senior women's race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.

Helen Chepngeno
Born: August 2, 1968, Kitopen, Bomet

A corporal in the prisons service, she defied heavy rains and strong wind to win the title in 1994 in Budapest, when she beat a strong field that included Irishwoman Catherina McKiernan, Conceicao Ferreira and Albertina Dias, of Portugal, Ethiopia's Merima Denboba, and the South African duo of Elana Meyer and Zola Budd.

Although Portugal won the team gold and Ethiopia the silver, Chepngeno steered Kenyan women to a team bronze, as she was followed home by Joyce Chepchumba (18th), Jane Omoro (25th), Helen Kimaiyo (31st), Pacifica Monda (36th) and Leah Malot (81st).

When she returned home, the prisons department promoted her to inspector.

Chepngeno was instrumental in giving prisons service the reputation of developing top athletes. Prisons women have especially excelled, what with the likes of Chepchumba, who has won several big city marathons including London and New York, four-time Boston Marathon champion Catherine Ndereba, Margaret Okayo, and three-time World 4km Cross Country champion Edith Masai.

While in Kitopen primary school, Chepngeno took part in every event longer than 200m. She continued to run once she started work, representing the prisons department in triangular meets with Kenya posts and telecommunications and the secondary schools.

The turning point in her athletics career was 1991, as she finished second to Tegla Loroupe in the national cross country championships and she was selected in the Kenyan team to the World Cross in Antwerp.

"Being my first time on the global stage," she remembers, "I found conditions so hostile and I finished 46th. I was not discouraged because, after all, we won a team gold." In the team were Jane Ngotho (5th), Susan Sirma (7th), Margaret Ngotho (9th) and another prisons officer, Pauline Konga (15).

Back home, Chepngeno did a few track races and was taken to Europe for the Grand Prix circuit before the cross country season started again.

Chepngeno won the senior women's race at the 1992 Kenya Nationals. As usual, they went to the Embu training camp. Assembled was probably Kenya's strongest women's team ever, with Loroupe, Sirma, Kimaiyo, Ngotho and Konga.

The World Cross went to Boston, still remembered for the snow that slowed the pace. There, Chepngeno finished 15th, a great improvement from the previous year's performance. Kenya, led home by Sirma in ninth place, retained the team title.

Chepngeno, the young girl with a humble background was going places, literally. From the United States, she now flew to China for a road relay in Beijing with a team that included Margaret Kagiri, Kimaiyo and Loroupe. After they won, the $7,000 prize money was shared among themselves.

Chepngeno was left off the gold medal winning Kenyan team in 1993, so the following year, she was determined not to be omitted again. "I'd learned a lesson. Not to take things for granted and assume I would be in the team, however good I was," she says.

"After finishing second at the Nationals, I went to Embu camp prepared for any eventuality. My manager sent a ticket, which I safely kept in my bag, just in case I was dropped again.”

"More important, I trained like a donkey. I was so angry that I was left out of the previous year's team that I was not leaving anything to chance. I would wake up earlier than the team and do my own training before joining the rest during normal morning run. This was my secret, which I never let anybody know.”

"Sometimes, I would wake up and train with a select few men like William Sigei, who also trained on their own. On the day of departure, I wasn't speaking to anyone, even at the airport."

Chepngeno's determination paid off, and she duly won the title on a freezing day, her strong running leaving the favourite, McKiernan, unable to match her over the closing stages.

Chepngeno had hoped to take advantage of her new fame by flying off to America for some road races, but she dislocated her ankle and was forced to return home.

She never recovered from the injury and was not allowed to seek treatment abroad. However, her manager, Kim McDonald, arranged with a Canadian doctor to treat her in Nairobi. She recovered and won a few road races in Germany, thanks to Loroupe's help.

Chepngeno's views on Kenyan women athletes echo those of Edith Masai. Cultural demands, and men, make it difficult for Kenyan women to pursue long-term success as athletes. "Women can succeed if they remain focused and cool," Chepngeno says. "But the moment they start chasing men, they will lose focus and stop running."

With her prize money from running, Chepngeno was able to buy a five-acre plot in her home in Kitopen, where she built a house and rears 15 cows. Although still single herself, Chepngeno has raised two sons.

"Men will always chase athletes, mostly because of the money they command, then they start making demands like starting a family," she says.

"Problems always start the moment a man wants a family. The conflict between career and family begins there because the African tradition demands that women submit to their husbands."

Omulo Okoth for the IAAF