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The Marathon Man: Cork’s Bro. Colm O’Connell is ready to pass the baton

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By P=l O Conghaile

ITEN, Kenya — Like many students in Kenya, the boys of St. Patrick’s High School aspire to run.

They do more than that, however, as a unique courtyard attests. Traditionally, pupils who have made the grade at Olympic level have been invited to plant trees here. No more. Since Mike Boit first took shovel to soil in 1978, the confines of the yard have seen the practice change from a tree to a bush and from a bush to a shrub. Now they’re talking flowers.

Eight thousand feet high on the Elgeyo Escarpment, down a scramble of cinder tracks, there is more to this story than a small schoolyard, however. In particular, there is the boys’ extraordinary track and field coach. A small, unassuming Irish Patrician brother from Mallow, Co. Cork, Br. Colm O’Connell’s legacy is quiet, triumphant: since arriving here in 1976, he has coached more than 30 Olympians and world champions.

Crossing the sun-kissed pavement, we entered the headmaster’s office, unearthing further evidence of this remarkable success story. The National Schools Championship trophy has been gathering dust on a cabinet here since 1968.

“We don’t even bother bringing it to competition anymore,” O’Connell joked. In athletics, this school is untouchable.”

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Twenty-five years ago, things were different.

“There was just a dirt road and muddy tracks,” he said. “It was July, the rainy season, and there was no electricity or running water. Three years maximum is all I told them I’d spend in this place.”

Nothing could have prepared a man, whose only previous coaching experience had come teaching Gaelic football in Newbridge, for what followed. Forced to take the reins of track coach when the previous incumbent, a VSO teacher, returned home, O’Connell went in over his head.

“I had no idea where it was going,” O’Connell said. “The school had one or two international athletes on their books. I had no qualifications whatsoever.” (He still doesn’t.) His first major athlete was a little guy named Ibrahim K. Hussein, the first African to win the New York City Marathon.

At Kamariny Stadium, Iten, we arrived at what many consider the home of Kenyan track. Strewn with weeds, the track belied its reputation. Against the spectacular backdrop of the Rift Valley, it was here that Kipketer, Boit, Hussein and Rono took their first competitive steps.

Under an expansive blue sky, across which random clouds drift like tugboats, the athletes of tomorrow plied their trade. Cornelius Chirchir, World Junior 1500 meter champion, thundered by, skillfully dodging a cowpat. On the far side of the track, little boys and girls raced alongside Viola Kibiwott, winner of this year’s world junior cross-country championship in Dublin, willing their legs to grow longer.

Ingredients of success

Though virtually unknown at home, Br. Colm’s fame has traveled in track circuits. A video library squirreled away in the spare room of his house contains interviews and documentaries by the likes of CNN, ABC and National Geographic. “Chariots of Fire” producer David Putnam has written a screenplay of his life. The basic question, however, is always the same: Why are the Kenyans such bloody good runners?

“There’s no one secret,” O’Connell said. “It’s a lot of factors very subtly combined.”

You have genetics, he explained, a long and lean people eating a high-protein diet, a complete absence of junk food. You have blood that is especially rich in oxygen-bearing hemoglobin, provided they continue to train at altitude.

And you have a tough people, originally pastoral nomads, for whom “running is an extension of their lifestyle,” O’Connell said. Kenya is a country in which, from an early age, travel by foot is essential. Children may not run to school as much as they used to (the schools are gradually coming to them), but distances most Westerners would consider ludicrous are walked or run as a matter of daily necessity.

“I considered it as going to school, not as running,” as Peter Rono, 1500-meter gold medal-winner at the 1998 Olympics in Seoul, has said. Asked what it felt like being the best in the world after his victory at Seoul, his reply was instinctive. “What do you mean best in the world? There are about 10 guys at home who can beat me.”

Kip Keino, who ran two miles to the stadium to win the 1500 at the 1968

Mexico City Olympics after his bus got stuck in traffic, adds another dimension. “They run naturally and they enjoy training,” he said. “You have the high altitude, but if you don’t enjoy running that’s not going to help.”

“The runners are good in Iten because there are so many role models,” said

Festas, a 17-year-old student of St. Patrick’s. “We want to be successful

like the runners who have gone before.” Among his own heroes, he listed

the greatest 800 runner of them all, Wilson Kipketer.

In a world where track and field is increasingly governed by science, the story of Iten remains refreshingly pure. You’ll not find a single sprinter here — a discipline so technical as to be beyond many Kenyans’ means. Instead, this is a place where running is affordable. If weights are necessary, they use stones. Asked about the value of his 5,000 gold medal in Seoul, John Ngugi once said he’d prefer to win a cow.

“People are always amused to hear that we have no track,” O’Connell said. “But we don’t tend to place that much emphasis on facilities. I think it even encourages them to work that little bit harder.”

Likewise, O’Connell lives simply. He drives the 10 kilometers from his house to

Tambach Teachers’ Training College, where he currently lectures, at a leisurely pace. Proudly, he recounted the fact that his mother had sent a letter a week for 25 years — a total of 1,200 missives. There is little sense of mission. “It could have been any sport,” he said. “My basic coaching came from the athletes themselves. I watched them, I talked to them.”

Low-key style

Lack of a technical background, he maintained, helps the situation. Kip Keino spoke of O’Connell’s “personal, low-pressure style.” Having served at St. Patrick’s as a geography teacher for 10 years and principal for seven, he learned the value of a holistic approach. Track began as a way to get to know the students outside of the class. “You have to take care of the whole person,” O’Connell said. “I’m their nurse and their doctor, their father, their teacher and their guide.”

Said Peter Rono: “Brother Colm is the best coach I have ever had. He was like a father to us when we were in school.”

A further insight came when we watched a “60 Minutes” documentary featuring the infamous Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, where young recruits are coached in a notoriously driven environment. Some go on to make it, but most burn out, their growth stunted, their hopes blown.

“I wouldn’t agree with this guy’s philosophy at all,” O’Connell mused. “It’s easy to get a good one at a price to the others. That’s my fear. You need to look at them not as winners, not as losers, but as people.”

Certainly, the philosophy is an attractive one in a world where success is desired at all costs. But it would be nanve to suggest that Kenyans don’t know what a world-class athlete is worth. Theirs is a developing country, a poor place in which athletes can realize dreams of travel, achieve some real purchasing power in the outside world. They admire Moses Kiptanui for his world record-breaking 3,000-meter steeplechase runs in the 1990s. They also admire his Mercedes.

And sadly, at times the promise of gold medals and prize money have tended to overwhelm basic educational values. Even in such a self-consciously “proper” school as St. Patrick’s, where entry is ostensibly selected on academic ability, dormitory graffiti lists the brand names that will sponsor its best runners in the future: Nike, Reebok and Puma. The shoe wars have all too often tempted runners to leave school early in the hope of earning millions, which only few can achieve.

O’Connell, however, strives to teach the value of education, to enable his students take maximum advantage of any scholarship offers. “Nearly all Kenyans come back,” as he puts it, proudly describing the Kenyan sense of obligation toward parents and extended family. “There are so many heroes it’s almost too common.”

The evidence is everywhere: Moses Kiptanui built a primary school for his village high in the Cherangani Hills. For more than three decades, Kip Keino and his wife, Phyllis, have taken homeless orphans into their home, providing up to 80 at a time with education and shelter.

O’Connell’s own council is sought worldwide, but he remains modest. “I could

have branched out if I wanted to, but I didn’t ever entertain the idea,” he said.

He gets dozens of letters a year from aspiring runners; scouts call all the time. “They ask you for the email addresses of 1500-meter runners doing 3:35. I mean, most of these guys aren’t even accessible by road.”

He could have made his millions by now, but the thought doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind. I learn, for instance, that camps run every April and December are under threat since their benefactor, British agent Kim McDonald, died last November. O’Connell demurs. Lack of facilities has done nothing to hamper their success in the past. Yes, Iten training camp needs money, he said. No, it is not in crisis.

At any rate, this unlikely 50-something-year-old is beginning to pull back. Taking more of a supervisory role, it has always been a dream of his to “Kenyanize” the process. “I was fortunate to come into a situation where I really found my niche as a person,” he said. “But now I want the Kenyans to learn like I did. They won’t do that if I’m continually looking over their shoulder.”

Six coaches have already come through the ranks, reminding one of the time

Moroccan superstar Noureddine Morceli was asked whether there were any runners he feared. “The new Kenyans,” he said. “There are always new Kenyans.”

Now this man who has never visited an Olympics, preferring instead to listen to his charges break records on the BBC World Service, is even talking about an extended trip to Australia or New Zealand. He may still be found with baseball cap and stopwatch in tow each day at 4 p.m., but slowly, surely, he is passing the baton.

And one gets the sense, at Kipchoge Stadium in Eldoret, watching him chattering to past, present and future greats in broken Swahili, that he will very much be missed.

But by now they will understand that he too must adhere to a philosophy he has taught for decades: “Get in, get on and get out.”

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