Oh Brother, I've just broken the world record and taken Olympic gold
ATHLETICS:David Rudisha’s journey to glory at last summer’s London Olympics is truly a remarkable one
The one thing in sport you cannot plan for with any great certainty is a world record. The other thing is an Olympic gold medal. It just helps when two people know exactly what it takes.
So, around this time last year, shortly after the rainy season in Kenya, and coming off his self-imposed three-month break, David Rudisha called into the small concrete house in the grounds of St Patrick’s High School, in Iten, home to his coach Brother Colm O’Connell.
They talk over a cup of sweet tea. What did they need to do to get Rudisha, still only 22 at the time, into the best shape of his life come the London Olympics, some nine months away?
How could they sustain the unbeatable form of a man who had already broken the world record, twice, just won the World Championships, and effectively turned 800 metre running into a flat-out sprint from the front?
Brother O’Connell’s story has been told many times – how his missionary trip to Kenya in 1976 helped convert a nation into distance runners – and when Rudisha tells his story of setting that world record, winning the Olympic gold medal in London, there is no disguising the master planner.
First, he wants to clear up some confusion: Rudisha wasn’t born at altitude, didn’t run to school, and anyone who thinks he’s some kind of freak talent should know the girls used to beat him in training at school.
“And let me tell you,” he says, in his soft whispering voice, “that I discovered Brother Colm first, before he discovered me,” and with that breaks into a wide smile.
“It was one of my first outings, in school, when we came to Iten, for the provincial championships, and stayed in St Patrick’s. That morning, I was walking around, and saw all these trees planted, with the names of great athletes written next to them.
Like Peter Rono, Mathew Birir, and I asked the students, ‘how has this school produced so many good athletes?’, ‘and who is behind this?’, and they told me, ‘the white man’, called Brother Colm.
“So I was very interested to know more about him. But I was a bit shy. Later that morning he drove by in a car, and I wished I could talk to him. But I said I would go back, do more training, then maybe he could select me to join his camp. Because the guys told me, ‘if you want to be here, you have to first show up in competitions’, then when you are at a certain level, he picks athletes for his camp.”
Rudisha is telling me this over the course of a day at Dublin City University, on his first trip to Ireland, to witness his coach receive an honorary doctorate.
What they share is not just a close relationship and mutual respect but a wonderfully modest outlook on their achievements, like when Brother O’Connell tells me what he first saw in Rudisha.
“That year, when David first came to the school, what struck me was his size, he was very tall, at age 15. He was actually running 200 metres then, but I noticed his movement. He wasn’t as co-ordinated as he is now, but when I see a young athlete like that, I don’t rush to any decision. I just store it in my mind, leave it there for a while.
“Then the following year he was back, and competing in the decathlon. The first thing I thought was that he’s still at it, not just a one-day wonder. And in the decathlon I saw him in a few events, then told him about my youth group. Because he’s not from the area, but about 250km away, that was a problem, but when he came back the next time, he’d checked out of his own school, come to Iten with his few possessions. I knew then this guy was focused, was looking for something.
“Later, I found out that his father Daniel Rudisha, who I remembered from old, because he won the Olympic silver medal, in the 400-metre relay, in Mexico City, so I knew then that genetically I was not too far wrong.”
Brother O’Connell suspected Rudisha’s potential lay over 800m, and it wasn’t long before he was proven right: “At the end of that first camp, after three or four weeks, he was fairly fit, and what I do is take them down to the stadium, for a sort of fun run, just to see do they gain anything through the training.
“I knew he was a 200m, 400m runner. So I said try the 800m. At that time we also had the national school champion, who I thought would be a good measure, and David beat him, running 1:49.6. Now, I didn’t say anything to him at the time, because I was a little bit mesmerised. I just thought to myself, ‘this kid looks okay, for his first time’, then let it store for a little while.”
That stadium, by the way, is at 8,000 feet, an old dirt track – and there was further proof of this potential when just a year later he won the World Junior title, before, in 2010, twice breaking the world record, lowering it to 1:41.01.
It helped considerably that Rudisha had found the same man who coached Wilson Kipketer to the previous world record of 1:41.11. “For sure, he is a very good coach, but he’s also a teacher, knew exactly what I needed to learn about the event. And it was really hard at first. Because I come from low altitude, in the long runs, sometimes I couldn’t survive,” says Rudisha.
“Even some of the girls were beating me. Then I got to know about fartlek, running 40 or 50 minutes, even one hour. So I learned a lot at that time.”
Completing the cycle
Against that backdrop came London, and having gone unbeaten in 2010, and losing only once in 2011, many people had already put the gold medal around his neck. Rudisha’s front-running tactic, leading every step of the way, as devastating as it could be, is not ideal for championship running, and no man had ever held the world record and World and Olympic titles at the same time.
“Well for sure, it was the only thing we were waiting for. We’d set out to achieve those other goals, managed to achieve both of those, so coming into 2012, we were completing the cycle, by setting out to achieve the Olympic title.
“And I was very, very focused all year. Because I knew what was at stake, coming to the championships like the Olympics, You don’t want to wait another four years for your next try. But all I was telling people was that I would try for the gold medal, never once talked about the record.”
Deep down, O’Connell suspected Rudisha might need to run a world record to win gold in London, or at least go close, and with that in mind introduced slight adjustments to the training, and a sparse yet specific racing programme.
“True, we kind of weaned out the pace setters,” he says, “because we knew in the Olympics David would be on his own. In the past Sammy Tangui would pace a lot of his training sessions, but not this year. David trained alone, most of the time.
“Then we had just four races before London. In Doha, he ran 1:43.10, first race. Then 1:41.74 in New York, two weeks later. We knew everything was on track, then at the Kenyan trials, in Nairobi, he ran 1:42.12, (the fastest ever at altitude), which is certainly equal to 1:41. Then he went to Paris, three weeks before the Olympics, and again, 1:41.54. So all those races combined we knew he was in 1:41 shape.”
Clearly, he’d done all the conditioning work, and yet all this careful planning could be easily undone if conditions in London weren’t right: Rudisha’s racing style, his 6ft 3in frame, could be easily blown off course on a windy evening, and he’s never liked running in the cold or rain (his defeat on a wet night in Zurich at the end of season proof of that).
“You might remember in London, the Sunday before, there was a downpour of rain, during the women’s marathon,” says Brother O’Connell, “and I was a little concerned that another day like might not be good.”
World record shape
“Then when he ran the heats, we talked, and he said the track feels good, the actual surface was nice. That was reassuring. On the night of the final, he came out into the stadium, the crowd was great, it was nice and warm, very little wind, and no rain. Perfect conditions, just what he likes.
“So he was in the right mind, in the right place. After that it was only a matter of waiting for the gun, going full throttle, and giving it a good lash.”
Brother O’Connell watched the final on the old flickering television set up in the corner of his sitting room, the same place he watched all his other star pupils. Central to his coaching philosophy is the idea that athletes need to be able to stand up for themselves in competition: “I always found it funny that so many people ask me, ‘where am I going to watch it?’, as if it will make any difference.
“I did expect something extra, but we never once discussed a world record. His only focus, from day one, when he started back last December, was to win the gold medal. Now, as it turned out, it more or less took a world record to win the gold, because the second guy equalled Seb Coe’s old record.
“So he really had to be in world record shape. He might have got away with a little less, but not much less. And it wasn’t just his run, but the whole race, every athlete, ran exceptionally well, from number one to number eight, all run a personal best. And the guy who finished last would have won the previous Olympics.
“So it was probably the greatest 800m race, ever.”
The look on Rudisha’s face as he crossed the line was proof that winning was the most important thing too, as it was a moment later before he realised the clock had stopped at 1:40.91.
“Really,” he says, “to break the world record, in that race, was something of a dream for me. I didn’t think it was going to be possible in the Olympics.
“Because the plan actually, the only thing we did talk about with Brother Colm, was to try to break the world record after London.
“But everything was fine on the night. So, I was really just going for 1:41. Of course that was close to the world record anyway. In the heats I was running very confident. 1:44, just cruising. Then I knew if I could push I could do 1:41, having run it twice, in New York and Paris.
“Sure it fell into his lap,” laughs Brother O’Connell, “with the night that was in it. And sure there has to be a bit of that to it.”
Soon, Rudisha will call into Brother O’Connell again, and they’ll sit down and discuss plans for 2013. It might seem obvious to some that Rudisha should try the 1,500m, and with that perhaps challenge the 3:26.00 world record that has stood to Hicham El Guerrouj since 1998, but O’Connell is not so sure.
“I would have a question mark,” he says, “because David runs with such power, and rhythm, and the 1,500m is very different, and I think it would upset his balance. But perhaps he’ll run a 1,000m, maybe try for that world record.”
Rudisha, who is on a three-month break where he doesn’t run a step, is looking at him, nodding slowly in complete agreement. Two people who know exactly what it would take.