by Marc Bloom
PORTLAND 9/19/06 --
For high school competitors in the Nike Team Nationals who may imagine themselves as international runners some day, take a deep breath and fasten your seatbelts--the pace has suddenly gotten a lot faster. The Kenyans are coming.
In a new program of cultural exchange, Nike today announces the entry of two Kenyan high school teams, one boys’ squad and one girls’ squad, each with five runners, into this year’s meet on Dec. 2 in Portland, Oregon.
“I have spent a fair amount of time in Kenya the last couple of years,” said Nike’s Josh Rowe, who, along with his Nike colleague John Truax, created NTN in 2004. “Running brings so many opportunities to Kenyans, many of whom live in extreme poverty. I thought, let’s give these youngsters a cultural experience as well as an athletic experience. Let’s bring them to America and give them a taste of life outside of Kenya.”
The ten young athletes from Kenya have never traveled outside their country or taken an airplane. Some have never even been to the capital, Nairobi. They are from rural areas and have experienced few comforts. Some walked or ran as far as 10 kilometers roundtrip to attend primary school.
Currently, they attend same-sex boarding schools—Kapkenda for girls, Moi Sirgoi for boys--in the Eldoret area in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, the region that has produced many of the world’s greatest distance runners who have dominated major track, marathon and cross-country events for decades. Ben Limo, the 2005 world 5,000-meter champion, and Robert Cheruiyot, this year’s Boston Marathon winner, are but two recent examples.
Martin Keino is on the project
“You can’t imagine the reaction of the youngsters when I broke the news,” said Martin Keino, a former professional runner who is working with Nike on organizing the trip under the auspices of his year-old company, Keino Sports Marketing, which provides opportunities for Kenyan youth. “These kids are from very humble backgrounds. They will learn so much from their experience in America that will help improve their lives.”
Keino, 34, is a son of Eldoret’s most famous resident, the running immortal Kip Keino, whose Olympic titles and world records in the ‘60s and ‘70s—as well as his grace and humility—raised the curtain on the African running revolution. Keino, who currently serves as president of the Kenyan Olympic Committee, is also known for his humanitarian work. He and his wife Phyllis have cared for hundreds of orphans at Kip Keino’s Children’s Home. Nike has invited Kip Keino to be a special guest at Nike Team Nationals.
Martin Keino, whose 3:33.00 1500 and 3:52.33 mile set family records, has continued his family’s charitable efforts. Keino himself benefited from broad cultural experience in his youth. He attended Fork Union Academy in Virginia and was a Foot Locker finalist in 1989, placing 6th. He won the NCAA cross-country title at Arizona in 1994, a springboard to international success, and hopes that Kenyan youth, like those coming to Portland, can gain from seeing a wider world.
Nike considers the benefits mutual. “There’s such a mystique about Kenya and its great runners,” said Truax. “At NTN, the U.S. kids will see that the Kenyans are just like them, working hard, and that Americans also have the potential to be among the world’s best.”
The ten Kenyans are in 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grades, from age 14 through 17, same as American high school students. In Kenya, the school term runs from January through November, and the cross-country season starts in January, consistent with international running. Currently, the Kenyan teams have no competitions and are training strictly for NTN. Each group does a morning run and then a second workout in the evening.
How the Kenyans were selected
The Kapkenda girls and Moi Sirgoi boys were chosen on the basis of team performances last February in a high school cross-country meet held at Kip Keino’s farm. They ran the 4k distance (about 2.5 miles), and the Kapkenda girls’ times were between 13 and 14 minutes, as fast as any U.S. girls run for 4k. The altitude in Eldoret is 7,000 feet.
The Kenyan girls are Maureen Kipchumba, Eulita Tanui, Sally Kirui, Leonida Mosop and Sharon Kipsang. The boys are Joseph Rono, Solomon Keter, Linus Tirop, Mark Mutai and Dominic Ruto. Keino said that these athletes could represent Kenya in world junior events in the next year or two.
One athlete in particular--Rono, a 15-year-old freshman--turned in a startling performance in the February meet. He placed 2nd within a few hundredths-of-a-second to the young man who six weeks later won the world junior cross-country title in Fukuoka, Japan. Martin Keino said that Rono’s 4k time in Eldoret was “10 minutes and change.” A time of, say, 10:50, is 4:20 mile pace. “Rono is a very talented boy,” said Keino.
“These kids have no idea how good they are,” said Rowe. “There are few meets for youth in Kenya. The whole country has only a handful of tracks.” Rowe said that Kenyan participation in Portland could be a first step toward a separate international high school race at NTN, with teams from many nations, in the future.
In Portland, the Kenyan squads will participate in the full weekend events on the Nike campus, along with the 20 American boys teams and 20 girls teams, about 330 athletes in all. “The Americans will learn how Kenyan athletes train on the high school level,” said Keino. “Some may be shocked at what they eat, how they perceive running, what their goals are.”
“It will be a wonderful culture exchange,” said Truax. “While the athletes will find they have much in common, the big difference is, the Kenyans have ‘less.’ Having less probably gets them more.”