Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Still no substitute for sheer hard work

Ian O’Riordan talks to Br Colm O’Connell, the renowned coach to generations of world-class Kenyan athletes, about where the sport is headed

WANTED : Distance running coach. Must have trained numerous Olympic and World champions and world record holders – preferably two athletes in the same event. Must be equally capable at coaching men and women, must be able to work with very basic facilities and must be prepared to do it on mostly voluntary terms.

DOES SUCH a person exist? If so, the search would best begin in Kenya, the country which seems to produce world-class distance runners at the same rate as Saudi Arabia produces oil. It would continue high into the mountains, to altitudes of 8,000 feet, on the fertile edge of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. And it would end in the small town of Iten, population about 4,000, and home to St Patrick’s High School for boys.

There, possibly only there, you will find the person you are looking for. Although he never had any formal training as a coach, his name has become renowned in distance running, and still his list of successful athletes continues to grow.

And although he’s been living in Kenya since 1976, and has no intention of living anywhere else, the one place Br Colm O’Connell will always call home is Caherduggan, near Mallow, in Cork.

The story of Br Colm, his journey from Irish missionary teacher to godfather of Kenyan distance running, has been told many times. Yet it’s lost none of its fascination. Knowledge accumulated from over three decades of coaching has made him one of the most curious figures in world athletics – and one of the most sought after, particularly when it comes to answering the enduring question: why are the Kenyans so good?

Still, he remains one of the most elusive. He rarely leaves the vicinity of St Patrick’s, and whenever he does make the long journey home to Ireland it’s usually unannounced.

He came home this time to visit his 91-year-old mother, Kate O’Connell, who had been hospitalised in Cork. He got to spend a few weeks with her, before she passed away, on August 19th.

It was somehow fitting that the sadness of this was partly lifted when just three days later one of his latest recruits, David Rudisha, broke the world record for 800 metres, running 1:41.09, in Berlin on August 22nd. Br Colm didn’t get to witness the race, as he was attending his mother’s funeral.

So, as if one cue, Rudisha went out just seven days later and broke the record again, running 1:41.01, in Rieti, on August 29th, and this time Br Colm was trackside to witness it.

There’s every reason to believe Rudisha, still only 21, will break that record again over the next few years. Br Colm is not making any great predictions about Rudisha, because he rarely does, about any of his athletes.

There’s always been a natural modesty about Br Colm which helps to explain his success, and why his reputation is as much about developing good people as it is good runners.

“Well, considering he’s just broken the world record twice,” he says, “you would have to say David Rudisha is one of the best I’ve ever seen. But how much quicker can he go? Well, it all depends, really.

“We’ll have to see how the off-season goes first, from September to next March. And next year there will be other priorities. There are the World Championships, in South Korea. That will take over a little bit from record performances.

“We’ll also need to get more stability into the running, make sure he can run championship races without pace-setters, and things like that. Then, of course, 2012 has its own goal already set, the London Olympics.”

Br Colm has always rated an Olympic medal as the ultimate reward in the sport, ahead of world records and prize money.

Nurturing Olympic medallists was how he made his name, beginning with Peter Rono, Olympic 1,500 metre champion in 1988, then Matthew Birir, 3,000m steeplechase champion in 1992 – and two more Olympic steeplechase champions, Reuben Kosgei (in 2000) and Brimin Kipruto (in 2008).

He’s also coached 20 World Championship gold medallists – possibly more, because he doesn’t keep count – and hundreds of his athletes have made their name at some level on the world stage.

One of his early discoveries was Wilson Kipketer, a student at St Patrick’s, who later won three World Championship 800m titles, and in 1997 broke Sebastian Coe’s world record (which had stood for 16 years) by running 1:41.24. Then, 11 days later, Kipketer broke it again, running 1:41.11 – the record which stood for the past 13 years, before Rudisha made it his.

The similarities appear obvious: two of his athletes, both breaking the 800m world record, twice. But there are some notable differences, he says, not least that Kipketer trained mostly in Denmark, having gone there as an exchange student in 1990, and later taking out Danish citizenship.

“Wilson took 800m running to a new level, gave it a new dimension,” says Br Colm. “The graceful way that he ran, gliding around the track. But Wilson went to Europe, and did most of his real training in Denmark. David has come completely out of Kenya, a Kenyan background.

“So this is another new chapter in Kenyan athletics, really. Certainly with David, he’s the first official Kenyan, if I can call him that, to break the 800m world record.

“David is also different in that he’s a very powerful runner, comes off a very strong 400m base. He runs like a 400m runner, who keeps going for another lap. It was actually in the 200m that I first saw him run, in primary school. But I really didn’t get the idea he might be interested in training with our group until I saw him in the decathlon.

“The 400m is one of those events. Then later, when we’d spent some time working together, I said, ‘why don’t we see you over 800m?’ That’s when I really saw his potential.”

Rudisha was different alright. A member of the Maasai tribe, whereas most Kenyan distance runners are Kalenjin, he was steered towards the shorter events by his father, Daniel, who remains one of the select Kenyan athletes to win a medal in a sprint event (with the 400m relay team that won silver in Mexico City, in 1968).

And the young Rudisha didn’t attend St Patrick’s, but rather a neighbouring school, in Kimeron. He asked to join the training group at St Patrick’s, and Br Colm agreed, as he does to most such requests.

That was 2005, and a year later Rudisha had run 1:46.30 and won the World Junior title.

By the end of 2009, he’d run a season-leading 1:42.01, and with that Br Colm started planning – meticulously, as always – for a world record.

“It was only when he ran the 1:42 last year that we said the record was within reach.

“In February he went to Australia, as I wanted to know what he’d do over a 400m race. When he ran 45.50 that clicked with me too. I knew then he had fantastic 400m speed, and I had to base his races on that.

“Then it was just a matter of getting the right race, the right conditions, and getting the right focus into his running. Berlin and Rieti were the two meetings that jumped out at us, because they were afternoon meets.

“David is not a great fan of the cold weather, and sometimes those meets at the end of August and early September can be a little cold if they’re run late in the evening.

“Then, to break it twice, and also win the Diamond League meeting in Brussels, in between, it really was a fairly formidable week.”

Br Colm talks about Rudisha with the sort of excitement you’d expect from a coach who had just discovered his first athlete. At age 60, his enthusiasm remains every bit as infectious as it was when he began coaching.

HE’D COME to Kenya in 1976 via the Patrician college in Newbridge, and when he arrived in St Patrick’s his enthusiasm to integrate with his pupils was the only motivation to coach.

Peter Foster, a brother of British distance runner Brendan, was also on voluntary work at the school, and figured this young Irish guy must know something about the sport. By accident, rather than design, Br Colm soon realised he did . . . and the rest is distance running history.

“But the basic coaching approach hasn’t changed much over the years,” he says. “You refine the methods, of course, and, as I said, adapt them to each individual. David has a different technique, runs more with power, more raw speed. All that has to be considered when coaching him. So it was really a new challenge for me, which I enjoyed doing.”

These days Br Colm effectively coaches full-time at St Patrick’s, having retired after 17 years teaching (and seven as headmaster). He’s been asked many times about the so-called advantages for young Kenyan athletes – the genetics, the living at altitude, the simple diet, the running to school, etc – which apparently explain their near-total dominance on world distance running, where only Ethiopia now rivals them.

“Yes, of course all those factors are there. But in athletics today, at the highest level, the hard work has to be done, more than ever before. Years ago, maybe, the Kenyan runners and others like them might have won races a little bit more on talent, where they come from, training at altitude, and all that.

“But now, the sport really boils down to hard training, having them right on the day and getting everything together. It’s not as easy as some people think, just because they’re Kenyan.”

He cites the example of Mo Farah, the British distance runner who was born in neighbouring Somalia, and therefore should have the same genetic advantage as the Kenyans.

Yet for years Farah struggled to match them, and only after spending the last couple of winters living and training in Kenya did he finally deliver on his potential – most notably when winning the 5,000-10,000m double at the 2010 European Championships in Barcelona.

“When Mo trained in Iten I think he broke down some of the myths, or mystique, that some of the Kenyan training had for him. That helped him quite a bit, to realise that, look, they just train hard, there is no short-cut. It’s not just natural talent or altitude or these other factors. These are factors, yes, but the hard work still has to be done.”

ALL THIS leads us to the question of where Irish distance running is at, and whether we can ever produce an athlete to match or even beat the Kenyans, the way Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan once did.

Br Colm suggests that times have changed, and it’s not a matter of trying to turn back the clock.

“Athletics has always been an individual sport, and will always depend on the individual to come through, no matter what the country. I think you see that in Ireland now in someone like Derval O’Rourke, for example.

“Or the young Ciara Mageean, from Down. There are little pockets, here and there, which will always keep the sport in the limelight. And that’s fantastic.

“Because that’s how athletics is in Ireland, and will probably always be. You’re never going to have the same base or reservoir that we have in Kenya, obviously. But you will always have individuals who just stand out.

“That’s just how the sport is going to be, and probably the best Irish athletics can hope for. You’re never going to get that system of bringing through masses of successful athletes in Ireland. I don’t think so anyway.

“But Ireland is a great sporting nation. In the last 10 years since I’ve been coming back, I’ve seen how much rugby has come to the forefront, between the Six Nations, and Leinster and Munster chalking up Heineken Cups. Golf as well, with Pádraig Harrington.

“Even looking at Gaelic football and hurling now, and how professional that has become over the last 10 years.

“The intercounty game is unbelievably professional nowadays. You see every little detail is looked at, with such a big backroom team. It’s incredible. And watching the All-Ireland hurling final, between Tipperary and Kilkenny, it’s clear that’s what a lot of youngsters will aspire to, the glamour and buzz of what is associated with that sport.

“So trying to pick an athlete out of that environment is not easy. The battle for the attention of young people in Ireland is tremendous.”

In all his years travelling home, Br Colm has also seen Ireland go from bust to boom and back again: “Well, I suppose a lot of investment did go into sport during the Celtic Tiger. I see that in all the new stadiums. But I think we still have to remember that sport is still the person first, rather than the facility. Go out to Kenya, to Iten, and see where athletes like David Rudisha train. Facilities are very, very basic.

“But that enthusiasm for sport in Ireland is still here. There was no one talking about depression in Tipperary the week after they won the hurling. Sport can lift people, bring them through the bad and difficult days.

“And Ireland is lucky to be such a fantastic sporting nation. Something will always come along in sport. Things are never as bad as they seem, same as things are never as good as they seem.”

Br Colm O’Connell Coaching Milestones

1976 Begins his missionary teaching post at St Patrick’s in Iten, asked to “help out” with coaching, despite having no background in athletics.

1986 Takes seven students to the World Junior Championships, in Athens, and one, Peter Chumba, wins the 5,000- 10,000 metres double, running barefoot, and another, Peter Rono, wins the silver medal in the 1,500.

1988 Rono wins the Olympic 1,500m title in Seoul.

1989 Holds the first junior training camp for Kenyan girls.

1992 Coaches former student Matthew Birir to the Olympic steeplechase title.

1993 Retires as headmaster at St Patrick’s to coach full time.

1995 Former student Wilson Kipketer wins the first of three consecutive World 800m titles, and later breaks the world record, twice, in 1997.

1997 Coaches Kenya’s first women’s World Champion, Sally Barsosio, in the 10,000m.

2000 Produces another Kenyan Olympic steeplechase champion, Reuben Kosgei.

2006 Coaches Augustine Choge to the Commonwealth Games 5,000m title in Melbourne.

2007 Coaches Janeth Jepkosgei to win the 800m World Championship title.

2008 Coaches a third Olympic steeplechase champion, Brimin Kipruto.

2010 Coaches David Rudisha to break the world 800m record, twice in eight days.