Saturday, 22 August 2009

For Cheruiyot, redemption time

Vivian Cheruiyot of Kenya crosses the line to win the gold medal in the women's 5000m final at the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics  (Getty Images)

Vivian Cheruiyot of Kenya crosses the line to win the gold medal in the women's 5000m final at the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics (Getty Images)

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    • (L-R) Meseret Defar of Ethiopia, Kenyan's Vivian Cheruiyot and Sylvia Kibet in the women's 5000m final
    • Yurika Nakamura of Japan leads the pack in the women's 5000m Final at the 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics
    Berlin, Germany – It was Meseret Defar who said this year would be all about redemption. Unfortunately for the Ethiopian who lost her Olympic title last summer, it wasn’t her who found it here in Berlin, but Vivian Cheruiyot, the tiny Kenyan woman she has beaten so often on the world’s biggest stage.

    Two years ago in Osaka Defar outkicked Cheruiyot on the last lap of the women’s 5000m final to win by five metres, just two months after the Ethiopian set the then World record in Oslo with Cheruiyot chasing her home to clock 14:22.51, a Kenyan record and still her PB.

    Cheruiyot said earlier this year that that performance was the highlight of her career. Until tonight that is.

    After 11 5000m races against Defar, of which she had won just one – in Brussels last September – Cheruiyot finally got her revenge at the 12th IAAF World Championships with a calculated piece of front running and never-say-die determination in the final straight not to let her chance slip away.

    “Normally when I race Defar I finish second,” she said afterwards, failing to hide her joy behind a smile that just got bigger and bigger the more she talked. “But this was my time. I believed in myself because of the training I have done in Kenya and here.

    “In Osaka two years ago I was the silver medallist and now I have the gold medal. It is a great achievement for me.”

    The 25-year-old added her first major title was inspired by the example of her training partner, Linet Masai, who won the 10,000m on day one. Like Masai, Cheruiyot got her tactics exactly right, as she wound up the pace lap by lap and kilometre by kilometre to take the finishing sting from Defar’s legs and give Kenya its first women’s 5000m World Championships gold.

    “They say patience pays and we have had to be patient,” she said. “But now is our time. It has been such a long time that Kenya has not got the medal in the 5,000m. I think we are coming now. I got the silver in Osaka and today I improved to gold so it is great to be champion.

    “After Linet won the 10k race she encouraged me to be self confident. She was my biggest inspiration and I believed I can beat Defar.”

    Indeed, it was as great day for Kenya, as Cheruiyot’s victory followed a Kenyan triumph over their Ethiopian rivals in the men’s Marathon earlier in the afternoon.

    “Now we have beaten Ethiopia in both the 5000m and the 10,000m,” added Cheruiyot, who shares the same manager, Ricky Simms, and training programme as Masai. “It’s great for me and Linet because we train so hard together and our performances here showed we got it right.”

    Cheruiyot certainly did. She’s competed against Defar enough to know that a slow race would merely play into her hands – or maybe her feet. So she took initiative shortly before the 3000m mark in a dawdling final and slowly, slowly increased the speed. After 3:06 and 3:05 for the first two kilometres, she clocked 3:04.01, 3:00.74 and 2:42.18. Even when Defar moved past her with 150m to go she knew she wasn’t beaten and clawed her way back to win by more than half a second.

    “For me the pace has to be fast,” she said. “If it’s too slow then anyone can win, and I know how fast Defar can be. I said to myself, ‘Maybe I can try my best and this time if I go fast enough I can win.’

    “So I decided to go at a fast pace, to push, to push so the others could not do their last lap. On my last 100m I was pushing so hard, pushing, pushing. Finally I won. It’s so great to be a champion.”

    Cheruiyot’s victory has indeed been a long time coming. Born in the rural district of Keiyo in the Rift Valley, she began running at school aged 11 and first competed internationally at the tender age of 14, at the 1998 world junior cross country championships. She won that title two years later and the same year, aged just 16, made her Olympic debut in Sydney where she was a finallist. No wonder she earned the nickname ‘Kidago’, Swahili for ‘Young One’.

    But after winning her third world junior cross medal in 2002, Cheruiyot seemed to disappear from athletics. She never stopped training but took some time away from racing to finish exams.

    A member of the Kenyan police team, she returned to competition in 2006 and a year later truly arrived as a world class athlete with those memorable duels against Defar.

    Even in last summer’s Beijing final, a devastating race for Defar, who lost her Olympic title to Tirunesh Dibaba, the Kenyan was still adrift of her rival in fifth. And in last year’s World Athletics Final it was again Defar first, Cheruiyot second, as it was at the Bislett Games in Oslo this June.

    No wonder Cheruiyot couldn’t stop smiling after finally getting revenge here in Berlin. “I want to thank everyone,” she said to the laughing media. “My husband, my coach, my manager, my brothers and sisters, the Kenyan police force who give me support and time to train – in fact, everyone in Kenya.

    “We are going to have such celebrations. We will sing and dance. Everyone will sing and dance in Kenya.”

    Even Defar caught the mood. Although visibly upset to have only taken the bronze, Defar broke into a smile herself and put her arm around the woman who had taken her title. They embraced and leant their heads together for the cameras almost as if their fates as athletes were somehow inseparable.

    Matthew Brown for the IAAF