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Sally Kipyego Has Medaling On Her Mind

The 26-year-old will run both the 10,000 and 5,000 meters.

The 26-year-old will run both the 10,000 and 5,000 meters. 

(c) 2012 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission. 

TEDDINGTON, ENGLAND — At home in Eugene, Ore., Sally Kipyego keeps the silver medal she earned at the IAAF World Championships in the 10,000m last summer in a less than exalted place.

“This is embarrassing, but I haven’t even taken it out of the box,” the 26 year-old Kenyan said with a sheepish laugh here today.  “It’s funny.  If that happens, you think you would really put an emphasis into it.  But after you walk out, it’s like, ‘next thing.’  For me that’s the end of the world.  But the next day, I was ready to go and start again.”

Kipyego, the youngest of seven children from the village of Kaptiony in the Marakwet District whose father died when she was four, sees the London Olympics as a new beginning.  That medal, tucked safely in the box, helps give her the confidence to face world and Olympic champions like Vivian Cheruiyot and Tirunesh Dibaba in the 10,000m final on August 3, and answer the question as to whether she’s a medal contender without a hint of hesitation.

“Absolutely, yes,” said Kipyego, making full eye contact with a reporter, her hair freshly braided on a recent trip to Kenya.  “Training has been going great.  I feel like I have the confidence now that I can race with the best in the world.  That by itself is such a plus.  I’m going into the race, trying to get a medal for sure.”

Although the 10,000m will only be her first event in London (she’s also running the 5000m), she can’t hold anything back, she said.  She said that she’ll think about the 5000m later, either as a way to add to her success from the 10K or as a second chance.

“You definitely have to run that like there is no 5K coming up,” she explained.  “I have four days before the prelims, and another three days before the final.  I think that’s plenty, plenty of time to recover.  I’m not even thinking beyond the 10K at the moment.”

At last summer’s world championships, the 10,000m became a last-lap duel between Cheruiyot and Kipyego.  Cheruiyot ran sub-62 for the final 400 meters to get the win, but she had to run a personal best 30:48.98 to beat Kipyego who finished only 6/100ths of a second behind.  But Kipyego anticipates a faster race in London based on the super-quick winning times of the last three Games (30:17.49, 30:24.36 and 29:54.66 OR).

“If you go with history, the Olympics is always a very different race than the world championships,” Kipyego said.  “The Olympics tend to be a little bit tough, a little bit hard from the go.  I am going there with the mentality that it’s going to be painful, whether I like it or not.  Just be ready mentally to go through the pain.”

Kipyego is not afraid to struggle, and hers is both a Kenyan and American success story.  She ran in Kenya as a teen, making it to the IAAF World Cross Country Championships as a junior in 2001 when she was just 15 (she finished eighth), but she stopped running soon after that due to stress fractures in her legs.  She wouldn’t compete for over two years, but managed to land a scholarship to South Plains Junior College in Levelland, Texas.  She said she was overweight and completely out of shape when she arrived there in 2004.

“For me, running was a way out,” Kipyego said.  “When I started running again, I started from absolute zero.  I was running 19 minutes for 5K at the end of 2004.  I was fat and out of shape.  It was awful. When I came to South Plains College I was 130 pounds (59 kg).  That’s about 28 pounds (13 kg) heavier than I am now.”

At South Plains, Kipyego won the national junior college (JUCO) titles at 1500m, 5000m and 10,000m in both 2005 and 2006.  She enrolled at Texas Tech University the following fall in Lubbock, Texas, where she became the first Kenyan woman to win the NCAA Division I Cross Country title (she would win it three times).  She would then win NCAA titles at both 3000m and 5000m (indoors and outdoors), and 10,000m, and lower the NCAA 10,000m record twice.

After college, Kipyego moved to the Nike-sponsored Oregon Track Club Elite where she has worked with coach Mark Rowland since 2009.  Kipyego said she loves the support she receives through the club (her husband Kevin Chelimo is also a member), but especially the coaching she gets from Rowland, a man who gives praise sparingly, but whose blunt honesty may be his greatest asset.

“He’s so composed,” she said after thinking for a few seconds.  “He looks a lot in the big picture.  He’s so subtle.  If you had a fantastic workout, he would say, ‘that was good.’  That’s how much you would get out of that. In a good way, I like it.  It kind of gives me balance not to get over my head.  He’s brutally honest.  It’s tough to take it sometimes.”

Under Rowland’s coaching, Kipyego has been a world beater.  She’s run 8:35.89 for 3000m, 14:30.42 for 5000m, and 30:38.35 for 10,000m.  She took second at the Kenyan national championships at 10,000m in 2011, and second and third, respectively, at the Kenyan 5000m and 10,000m Olympic Trials this year.  As she does her final preparations for her first Olympic appearance, she said she can hardly believe how far she’s come for that small village in the Rift Valley.

“I’m a dreamer, I’m a dreamer,” she said.  “I believe in dreams coming true.  It’s just shocking how things can turn around.  I never thought I could run 14:30.  I never thought that was possible.  I’m still amazed and I’m still humbled.  I’m amazed it how much progress one can make.”