St Patricks Iten in the Kenyan Highlands seemed like any regular local school until 1976 when Brother Colm O’Connell arrived for what was supposed to be a two-year assignment to teach geography. But the following year, the cleric who belongs to the Brothers of St Patrick order started coaching athletics and since then he has produced an astounding list of world-class track athletes.
O’Connell’s reputation in turning young Kenyans into world-class athletes will come to the fore at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia where his proteges are competing for medals.
Athletes mentored by O’Connell include 19 year-old Augustine Choge who on 20 March set a new Commonwealth Games record when he won the men’s 5000 metres final in 12 minutes 56.41 seconds.
On the Kenya Highlands where O’Connell has lived for 30 years, he is a local hero. Many athletes seek out the man who coached school soccer in his native Ireland. O’Connell was born in Mallow, County Cork in 1948, and attended schools run by the Patrician Order, which he joined after school. It is not surprising then that his training comprises a strong spiritual component.
"They see it [religion] as way of keeping off bad habits or stopping them getting involved in other issues," says the Patrician Brother. "This is because to be a good athlete, one has to reach a very high level. You have to put aside many ordinary things."
O’Connell’s proteges include the 1988 Olympic 1500 metres champion, Peter Rono; the 800 metre world record holder Wilson Kipketer, a Kenyan turned Danish citizen; the former World Steeplechase record holder Wilson Boit Kipketer and three-time Boston Marathon Champion, Ibrahim Hussein. At the school campus where O’Connell was headmaster, more than 100 world-class athletes have their names engraved on trees planted in their honour.
The school’s success draws strong interest among sports enthusiasts, and many of them say they will be watching the 15 to 26 March Commonwealth Games with anticipation and hope.
Some athletes have ascribed their success to high altitude training which significantly improves fitness, endurance and performance. Others say it as a genetic make-up that produces the local athletes, but O’Connell explains the success is due to more than just these factors.
"It is not running or exercise only which determines who they become, but the whole of their personality," he said. "So I take them through a very balanced approach. Their lives, their discipline," he says explaining that specialising in one little area and pushing it to the limits, brings out a lopsided athlete. "You end up with very good athlete, but a person very weak in other aspects of their life."
O’Connell spots his runners when they are at school between the ages of 14 and 15. He monitors their training while improving their discipline and enthusiasm.
"They are already motivated because they view running as a career. They have also picked up their role models," he explains as his words are drowned out by athletics fans at the Ngong Race Course, where the national cross country championships were taking place on 5 March.
In 1989, O’Connell organized the first training athletics camp with the attention focused on girls. He brought together eight girls and spent time trying to convince them to become devoted to athletics.
Inspired by him, athletics among young women took off like a bushfire, and the concept of the camps spread quickly in the country. Now, most Kenyan runners spent time at these camps. O’Connell holds two junior camps during school holidays in April and December.
"Working with the athletes, there have been few disappointments. But I have been disappointed to see very talented athletes leave the sport or make poor decisions ending their career," says O’Connell.
With all that experience under his belt and after retiring as St. Patrick’s headmaster, O’Connell has entered professional coaching by mentoring Augustine Choge and two other young specialised runners, Isaak Songok and Rebby Koech, who hold junior world records in long and middle distance races.
These days the Kenyan middle and long distance running, which once seemed invincible, is facing stiff competition from Ethiopian and Moroccan athletes. This has made Athletics Kenya, the national governing body of the sport, take a new approach to coaching. It is said to have a strong interest in O’Connell’s style, which they hope to see revive old glories of Kenya as a global track powerhouse.
O’Connell says although he has retired as a headmaster, he is staying in Kenya. Recently, he launched an HIV/AIDS awareness programme for teachers, which he hopes will enjoy similar success to his coaching in a country racked by hundreds of AIDS-related deaths each day.
(c) Ecumenical News International