Thursday, 17 November 2016

The other side of Ezekiel Kemboi, the King of the 3000m steeplechase

I, with Ezekiel Kemboi, the king of 3000m steeplechase

I cannot count the number of times I have come across Ezekiel Kemboi, the king of the men's 3000m steeplechase - two times Olympic and four times world champion, but every time I meet him, I get impressed by how he relates well with whoever he happens to know, especially his fellow athletes. I have seen him in the local track meetings here cheering on members of his training group as they compete. I have seen him on TV dancing for Usain Bolt and hugging the French athlete, Mekhissi-Benabear, who ran behind him to win the silver medal at the London Olympics. I have also seen him give out his Olympic gold medal to the president of Kenya.

The moments I have had with Kemboi have always left me puzzled, and wishing I could stir within me the same passion he has for running and a big and generous heart like his. Perhaps his numerous wins could possibly be the blessings he receives from the people he touches. Not only does he give advice regarding training, but generally to do with the life of being an athlete, some of the advice sounding funny, but beneficial. For example, he would advise against buying devices like smart phones which are more expensive than that of ones landlord before paying rent, claiming that it will make your life harder as the landlord will likely not listen to your pleas when you are late in paying rent. He likes dancing too, and does that automatically before and after the workouts, even without the assistance of a music system!
While I was in his training group in 2013, without expecting the returns that sponsors get when they sponsor athletes, he sponsored nine athletes with transport, food and accommodation for three days to a track and field meeting in Nakuru.
Despite all these positives some may still be having a different perception about him, but anyone who stays close to him for some time will get a different picture altogether and will understand how his generosity may easily be taken advantage of by people and third parties, especially the media, who are always out to find anything "interesting" to write about him.
I spotted him at Elijah Cheruiyot street in Eldoret town one time as he was about to enter his car when some street boys ran to him. I expected him to quickly get in the car and close the windows, but he just did the opposite. He spoke with them for a moment, then handed them some cash, probably for their meal. The two boys were so happy and even offered to give directions to him as he reversed his car from the parking lot. That was impressive!
One day later, there happened to have been some confusion in my usual training group where some preferred to do a fartlek while others wanted to do a different program. Consequently, I and two other members from the group ended up joining his training group for track workouts at the University of Eldoret's (Chepkoilel) stadium. He often trains in a large group of over 40 athletes most of them doing 1500m to 5000m events and to me being more used to longer distances, their workouts were shorter but intensive.
After the workouts, we all warmed down for about 15 minutes towards a place where his pickup truck had been parked and were all able to board it, more than 40 of us. Again, I observed that it would only take an exceptionally generous person to allow his vehicle to be overloaded by such a large number of athletes. Every time he stopped the vehicle to let some athletes alight at different stages, he would remind them about the program for the following day and the place to meet.
One athlete took a look at my spikes after we had alighted from the truck, observing that they were no longer in their best form, and asked me why I haven't asked Kemboi for some new ones. He told me that he and many others in the group have gotten shoes from him a number of times, and that even if he would not be having the shoes readily, he would give out money for one to buy the shoes for himself. Well, I am not in a position to do that, but as if to confirm it, Ezekiel actually observed some racing shoes of a new member in the group during the next workout and asked him whether he had other shoes. He never made an open promise to the athlete, but I know he is going to do something regarding it. After all, I have witnessed him do many amazing things in the few days I was in his group.
Being in the company of Ezekiel during training, you won't fail to observe that he has a way of instilling the joy of running to everyone in the group. It is so apparent that he himself passionately loves running and anything to do with it. He has a way of making light moments from almost every situation that happens in the track and trying to use it to pass a message. He would always tell anyone who wants to step out of the workout when it gets hard that no champion ever got to where he got without pain.
He is also a man who listens to and respects the opinions of other athletes regardless of the level they are in. For effective workouts, we would usually fit into groups of five athletes depending on our abilities before we start training. This week, he had suggested that one athlete in my group was fit to join another group, but we disagreed with him and he was ok.
The last thing he did just before I wrote this article left me speechless. He asked everyone to get ready by 8am in the morning the following day as he would move around with his vehicle to pick up and take every one of us for a morning run in Kaptagat (somewhere 15km to the East of Eldoret town). He had inquired as to where everyone lived and suggested a place for him/her to stand in wait for the vehicle. So, as I stood at 8:15am at the place assigned for me, it was just like a dream when I saw his truck pull up almost at the exact minute we had agreed upon!