Rudisha: I don’t know where I’d be without my coach, former missionary Brother Colm O’Connell
The Kenyan Olympic 800m champion should be one of the stars in Glasgow yet admits he owes much of his success to a remarkable Irish coach back home. Matt Majendie hears about an amazing partnership
Tuesday 22 July 2014
Down a dirt-track side road of a Kenyan town, Iten, known as the “home of champions”, St Patrick’s High School is the undoubted school of champions.
He may never have been a pupil there but it is on the school grounds that David Rudisha still resides with his wife Lizzy, the couple’s house barely a few paces away from the man whom the 800 metres world-record holder credits with his success – his coach and the school’s former headmaster, Brother Colm O’Connell.
It is an unlikely pairing between a former missionary, who never professed to hold any interest in athletics when he first came to the school, and a man labelled the Usain Bolt of middle-distance running. But it has brought Olympic and world titles, not to mention the world’s fastest time over two laps of the track. Commonwealth gold next week is the latest target.
The main school building is impressive compared to many of the ramshackle homes in the surrounding area but still fairly innocuous. The parched playing fields that surround it are hardly testament to the place of sporting excellence it undoubtedly is.
A simple honours board in the dining hall gives the first indication of how special this place is, though. The school records would make for proud reading for an entire nation let alone a mere educational establishment. And then there are the trees that litter the school grounds, each with a placard indicating the athletics glitterati who planted them.
The school’s list of alumni is illustrious, too. Former pupils include Peter Rono, the 1500m Olympic champion, the picture of him pipping British duo Steve Cram and Peter Elliott to that gold in 1988 taking pride of place in the headmaster’s office. Then there is Wilson Kipketer, the previous dominant force of 800m running, who was a triple world champion and twice an Olympic medallist, not to mention 1992 3,000m steeplechase champion Matthew Birir.
The school was synonymous with middle- and long-distance running before Brother Colm arrived in 1976 at the suggestion of Brendan Foster’s brother Peter, who taught at the school at the time, and the plan had only been to stay a short time while teaching geography. Nearly four decades later, he is still there, an institution in Kenyan and global distance running.
He plays down his role in shaping the likes of Rudisha, saying merely: “I landed on my feet here with all the sports programmes and all the enthusiasm for sport.”
Rudisha, the son of teachers, grew up many miles away from Iten but he knew about the mizungo (“white guy”) helping Kenyan athletes tear up the track. “I used to read the newspapers and I saw him appear one time and read about his coaching at St Patrick’s School. I was like, ‘Wow, how am I going to get connected with this guy?’” he recalls.
“I remember in 2004, we had the primary championships in Iten. That’s when I heard about Brother Colm again.” They met properly the following year at Iten when Rudisha took part in an 800m race and caught Brother Colm’s eye. On their relationship now, he admits: “I don’t know where I’d be without him.”
Ask anyone within the four walls of St Patrick’s and it is clear that running is a way of life. When the classroom bell goes, everyone runs to school. As 15-year-old student Ramadhan Juma explains: “Everyone has to run. You can’t decide not to run.”
The teenager, one of the many students whose families can pay the £450-a-year fees to attend the school, is one of the few not to enthuse about athletics, as begrudging as any British teen might be about the insistence on him doing cross-country.
Juma Darren Hart is the absolute opposite. The 17-year-old with a beaming smile who says Rudisha is his idol can already run the 800m under two minutes, although not even that is sufficient to be the quickest in his school.
At the centre of it all is Brother Colm, who talks with a passion for sport and his athletes that is palpable, a sparkle in his eyes as he mulls over the school’s first Olympic medallist, Mike Boit with bronze in the 1972 800m, or how he trained Rudisha to Olympic glory.
Brother Colm jokes that “it was a miserable day in Ireland that drove me out”, although he returns each year to Galway with Rudisha to visit family and friends.
His coaching training came under the influence of the West German government but his approach has always been more about instinct than anything else. “The very first lessons I learnt were how to deal with the athletes individually, be observant, to have a very good eye. An eye for talent, an eye for things you need to correct in your training. In the sense, I was learning on the ground every day.”
While other coaches pore over countless statistics and limitless video footage, he does not look like a kingmaker of distance running as he stands red-faced with his cap on and a stopwatch around his neck.
Modest to the core, he is from the old school in his approach, to the extent he has not attended a single Olympics or World Championships. “I don’t have a thing about it,” is his take on missing the major championships.
In the case of Rudisha at the 2012 Olympics in London, he argued his work was done. All that was left was to sit at home with some of his other athletes watching the inevitable unfold. That day Brother Colm had another athlete in the race, Timothy Kitum, whom Rudisha warned not to stay with him for the benefit of his race. Kitum listened and came away with the bronze.
Brother Colm adds: “In running it is about setting your mind on what you want to do and shutting everybody out, including your coach. Talking too much, I think you only confuse them. He didn’t do anything unusual in that final. He just happened to do every little bit better. And that’s what it is about. There was no point changing anything.”
The coach’s approach may belong to a bygone era but it is refreshing that results have followed from his relatively simplistic ways. For example, Rudisha prepared for London on a dirt 200m track which he pounded around 22 seconds at a time before a new track was built down the road in Eldoret, where Mo Farah and Britain’s elite runners have been based for much of the winter.
Brother Colm has worked only with athletes from their childhood upwards, never once taking on an adult. Rudisha may be one of a kind, but his mentor says his talent developed over a period of time.
His athletes do not doubt him, partly down to the success he has had. Rudisha’s belief rested on the results enjoyed by Kipketer. “You have confidence in your coach because he has already produced a world-record holder,” says Brother Colm. “But I start again with each athlete. Forget about how Wilson trained or how he ran because he is a different person. A Wilson model doesn’t suit David because they are different. Wilson was a smooth, graceful, free-flowing athlete who would win from the back, win from the centre, win from the front or whatever. David was more 400m and has a presence – he is tall [6ft 3in] so you can’t get rid of him out of your eyesight in the race.”
Rudisha is surely Brother Colm’s crowning glory. There is clearly a monumental fondness between the pair, and the results keep on coming. Next is Commonwealth Games gold.
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