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Sons of the Wind
Kenny Moore
February 26, 1990
Out of Africa have come generations of dominant runners, forged by the rigors and customs of Kenya's Great Rift Valley
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February 26, 1990

Sons Of The Wind

Out of Africa have come generations of dominant runners, forged by the rigors and customs of Kenya's Great Rift Valley

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As is winning. "When a girl wins a race," O'Connell says, "her first reaction is to run into the middle of the crowd and hide."

Most of O'Connell's runners do not come to him burning with inextinguishable ambition. "If you want to motivate them, they must enjoy it," he says. "If you bring the painful or boring aspects in, they may lose interest. You try to get them over the stage where the novelty's done, to where they say, 'Yes, I'm an athlete.' Then they can be single-minded about it." Then they can tap the deep seriousness their culture has planted within them.

Only rarely does O'Connell burden St. Patrick's boys with running much more than 50 miles a week. They need the energy to study. "And Kenyans have an amazing ability to get fit quickly," he says. "For example, in 1987 John Ngugi finished only 76th in the national cross-country, but he was still selected to the team going to the world championships because he'd won the year before. He had a mere three weeks to prepare. He won easily. It's built into them. In their daily lives a lot of Kenyans are training completely unbeknownst to themselves."

O'Connell swears the talent at St. Patrick's is equaled by that at other schools. He does not recruit. "One season we had fine 400-meter runners. That was the year I told Paul Ereng, 'Go away. You wouldn't even make our relay team.' " Ereng is now the Olympic 800-meter champion.

"I wish I'd taken him," says O'Connell, but his tone is free of regret. "When I see Kenya's team going off to the world junior championships, I know you can find another group just as good being left behind. It takes a teacher or headmaster, someone to give a boy a lift or a hundred shillings. Joseph, are there others in your school who can run?"

"There are," says Kibor. "But they have no transport. They have no chance of coming to races."

"So what we see," says O'Connell, "is the tip of the iceberg."

O'Connell trains his less talented team members to be assistant coaches. "Peter Rono was coached largely by a classmate," he says. "He was a small boy and always struggling. He ran the 5,000 when he came, which was O.K., but in 1983, Kip Cheruiyot was selected to run with the national team in Helsinki, and suddenly I had no 1,500-meter runner for the Schools Championships. I went to little Peter Rono and said, 'You're going to be a 1,500 runner. I need you.' "

Rono gave his grave consent. "That was his breakthrough. He won the Schools 1,500 and 5,000 double three times. He's really a 5,000 man. He has no hope in a real sprint, but if everybody's tired, he can maintain his speed."

Thus it was that in Seoul little Peter Rono led the last 800 meters of the Olympic 1,500 final and made everybody tired. In the stretch, with Steve Cram and Peter Elliott of Great Britain straining on his heels, Rono smoothly maintained his lead to the finish. He was the first St. Patrick's boy to win an Olympic gold medal.

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