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Cherobon-Bawcom’s Road to Rio Passes Through Savannah

The Kenyan native's running roots took hold during a car ride from a stranger when she was 19.

The Kenyan native’s running roots took hold during a car ride from a stranger when she was 19.

Heading into this Saturday’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Savannah Half Marathon, American Olympian Janet Cherobon-Bawcom is looking ahead the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials marathon, but it was back in 1997 she made a decision forever changed her life.

At the time, the distance-running ace was 19 years old and living in Kenya, where she was born. The oldest of eight children, Cherobon-Bawcom had never given running much thought, but on her way to a bus stop, she accepted a ride from a kind man who turned out to be none other than Peter Rono, the 1,500m gold medalist at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

Cherobon-Bawcom didn’t recognize Rono. As the two sat in the car, Rono began to talk with her about running.

“He told me three things I remember: that he was in the Olympics, that he met the Pope and that he went to the United States,” she recalls. “It’s funny, because when I got into the car, I wasn’t interested in his story. I didn’t know why he was telling me it. It didn’t seem to matter to me at the time.”

But Rono saw something in her and before he dropped Cherobon-Bawcom off, he asked if she would be interested in running and if he could help coach her. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “We’ll see,” as she climbed out of the car.

After a few months of reflection, Cherobon-Bawcom’s interest in Rono’s offer grew. She thought about the opportunities in running—traveling to the United States and getting an education—and she decided to track Rono down.

“These were the days of no cell phones and Internet and so I had to go out looking for him,” she says. “While I was doing that he passed me on the road again and said, ‘I knew you were coming to look for me.’”

When Janet thinks about the encounter now she laughs. “What were the odds of that? I didn’t even know his name. It must have been fate.”

RELATED: Cherobon-Bawcom Chasing Her American Dream

Fate or not, Cherobon-Bawcom’s chance encounter with Rono has paid off. He went on to coach her and she eventually moved to the United States and attended Harding University in Arkansas on a scholarship. While at Harding, Cherobon-Bawcom became an eight-time All-American and went on to meet her husband Jay Bawcom.

In 2010, she became a U.S. citizen and a year later, under the guidance of the legendary coach Jack Daniels, Cherobon-Bawcom began to make waves in the running world, becoming a three-time national road racing champion in 2011 and setting numerous U.S. road racing records. She wore the Team USA singlet for the first time at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, pacing 12th in the 10,000m.

Now 36, Cherobon-Bawcom is eyeing the 2016 Games in the marathon, a distance she has covered in an impressive 2:29:45. For her, the road to Rio passes through Georgia this Saturday when she competes in Rock ‘n’ Roll Savannah Half Marathon.

Cherobon-Bawcom used to reside in Rome, Georgia and she calls the Peach State her second home. She has raced in Savannah in the past and admits that the “Hostess City of the South” is one of her favorite racing destinations.

“I will have a lot of friends from the Atlanta Track Club who will be there, so it will be great,” she says.

Cherobon-Bawcom has been battling a persistent shin injury for the past few months, but says she’s been running consistently for six months in her current training base of Flagstaff, Ariz.

“I want to get in some racing before the end of the year,” she contends. “I want to put in a good effort, so anything under 73 minutes will be great. I hope to crank out some really good miles and see what happens.”

RELATED: Bawcom Breaks U.S. 10-Mile Mark

Though she has the versatility to produce results on the track, Cherobon-Bawcom says she wants to focus her efforts on the marathon.

“Next year will be really important, which is why I’m trying to lay low and just stay healthy now,” she admits. “I want to get my base back and see where my strengths are.”

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Savannah Marathon and Half Marathon celebrates its fourth anniversary this year. Thousands of runners will take to the historic streets of one of Georgia’s finest cities. Festivities kick off with the marathon and half marathon on Saturday. The next day, a 5K and 1-mile event take place in scenic Daffin Park.