Alex Rono Kipchirchir, the winner at this year’s Commonwealth Games (800m), African Championships (800m and 1500m), and the World Athletics Final (1500m), is Africa’s chosen representative for the men’s 1500m at the 10th IAAF World Cup in Athletics, Athens, Greece (16 -17 September 2006).
Although only a belated convert to the sport, the 21-year-old middle distance runner - he turns 22 on 26 November 2006 - is scaling the heights of global athletics stardom. He currently has a personal best at 1500m of 3:30.46 (2004).
Kipchirchir was among the two athletes who won double gold medals in the 15th African Senior Championships in Mauritius (August 9-13). The other being Ghana's Vida Anim, the championships’ most successful athlete after winning all three events she entered, the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay.
Kipchirchir played soccer, hockey and basketball throughout his secondary school in Litein High School in Kericho, on the southern fringes of the expansive Rift Valley Province.He was a first team soccer player for the school team, which he represented to the national level.
Financing the family
But he turned to athletics in 2000 after his sister, Purity Cherotich, who was then doing her final year at Kapsabet Girls Secondary, convinced him to try the sport.
“My sister convinced me to take up the sport for the sake of our family although I wanted to repeat my fourth form examination,” said Kipchirchir after winning 800m and 1500m gold medals at the African Championships.
“She wanted to pursue education while I wanted to repeat (my examination), but after consultations with her, we reached an agreement that I try my luck on the track. After all, there was not going to be enough money to pay for both our fees,” said Kipchirchir.
Six years down the line, Kipchirchir is reaping the fruits of a decision taken to make a living for himself and provide for his family.
After being persuaded by his sister, Kipchirchir joined the Fila camp in Kaptagat, Kenya in 2001, one of the many athletics training camps on the edge of the Kerio Valley, just a few minutes drive from Eldoret, a well-known athletics destination.
“I decided to take the plunge in the sport, which I never did in school. I met Moses Tanui who introduced me to Dr (Gabrielle) Rosa, and I trained there until 2002.”
World Junior champion
His debut on the international stage was at the ninth World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica, in July 2002, where Kipchirchir won the 800m title. Kipchirchir then proceeded to the European circuit, and switched to the 1500m. His first race over the distance was in Zurich, winning the B race in 3:32.95.
Back in Kaptagat, he continued training under David Leting, who is now one of Kenya's national cross country coaches. Although he missed the Kenyan team selected for the Paris World Championships in 2003 after finishing fifth at the trials, he improved his personal best to 3:31.42.
World Junior Record
The flood gates of success were swinging quickly open.
He raced against Morocco's double Olympic champion, Hicham El Guerrouj, in Rieti, Italy, on 7 September 2003, and just came second 3:50.25 to the winner’s 3:50.20, which was the World Junior Mile record.
At the World Athletics Final in Monaco the same year, he finished second to Paul Korir.
From that point, Kipchirchir has interchanged his training programme between Eldoret and Oregon, USA. He missed the cut for the 2004 Athens Olympics after finishing fourth and, ran a few races in Europe, winning in Rieti. He was second again in the World Athletics Final, this time to Ukraine's Ivan Heshko, before returning to Oregon for training.
Upset but generally a mixed year
Not perturbed by mixed results in 2005, Kipchirchir pulled off one major upset in the Prefontaine One Mile last year where he beat Kenyan-born Olympic silver medallist, Bernard Lagat, of the USA and soon to be World champion Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain.
With his eyes firmly glued on the Helsinki Worlds, Kipchirchir finished third behind Daniel Kipchirchir Komen and Paul Korir, but his ambition for a World title was thwarted by the stormy weather in Helsinki, where he finished seventh. His more favoured compatriot, Komen had misjudged his heat and finished sixth.
This time he dropped to third at the 2005 World Athletics Final.
2006 - no stopping him
He started 2006 with the Commonwealth title in Melbourne, Australia, in March.
Then having won in Doha, Oslo and finishing second to Heshko in Paris, Kipchirchir was a hot favourite in Mauritius at the African Championships, although not many people expected a double.
Kipchirchir produced a powerful kick on the homestretch to clinch the 800m gold (1:46.62) ahead of Sudanese Ismail Ahmed (1:46.65) and Alex Kirwa (1:46.85).
But it was his 1500m victory which was the most awesome and sent a chilling message to his rivals in Athens this coming weekend. He chose to remain behind until about 300m to go when he upped the tempo and cruised easily to victory.
And if his World Cup opponents think a final burst of speed in the home straight will save them in the 2004 Olympic stadium, then just ask Bernard Lagat - not a mean sprinter (!) - who was comprehensively out-kicked in Stuttgart last weekend when employing just that tactic.
Omulo Okoth for the IAAF