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.