Kenya champ aims for Beijing gold

Al Jazeera joins Pamela Jelimo for an early morning training session.

The 18-year-old 800m runner is fulfilling her dream of representing Kenya at the Olympics

She is only 18 but says running has been in her blood for as long as she can remember.

Meet Pamela Jelimo, the new African record holder for the 800m race, and one of Kenya’s best chances for Olympic gold.


She emerged from obscurity to win the 800m race during last month’s Golden League in Berlin in 1:54:97. On July 18, at the Paris heat, she beat her personal best to finish the 800m in 1:54:47.

When Al Jazeera visited the Nyayo stadium training facilities in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, Jelimo was the only female athlete present for the chilly morning session.

It is at first almost impossible to pick her out from the group training for the Olympics.

Jelimo was a sprinter before she switched to the 800m

She runs just as fast as the men – and with just as much vigour.

“I have been training for the Olympics for two years now,” she says after finishing her training.

“I did not know that I would make it to the national Olympic team back then. I was not even doing the 800m race. It was just a dream I had. And I am so glad to now be living my dream of going to the Olympics to represent my country.”

Jelimo started off as a sprinter, competing in the 400m races but felt she lacked an edge, particularly against American sprinters who performed better and achieved faster times.

“It was only early this year that I decided to take a chance with the 800m race. One of the main reasons that I decided to change my speciality race was encouragement from my uncle who believed that I would be a much better runner doing longer distances. I guess he was right.”

Destination: Beijing

The daughter of a 200m runner, Jelimo says running is in her blood

The Kenya Olympic team has been camping at the Moi International Sports Centre, about 20km east of Nairobi, in preparation for the Beijing Olympics.

Jelimo, with the rest of the team, begins her day at 6am when she goes for her first one-hour run.

“We do different things on different days,” she says. “It really depends on the coach’s decision. As an athlete, one of my duties is personal discipline and to respect the coach no matter how hard the training regime gets.

“Sometimes we run and exercise at the stadium, on other days we run at the nearby Karura Forest where the terrain is rough and trying.”

After the hour-long early morning training session, the athletes have breakfast and relax until 10am, when they take to the tracks again.

Between the 10am race and the last 4pm race, the athletes are given a royal pampering, receiving massages and motivational training in the camp.

Role model

Jelimo says she, and many female runners, have always been inspired by Janeth Jepkosgei, the previous 800m world champion.

Jelimo beat Jepkosgei during the national qualifier championships in May and also in Berlin last month.

“I greatly admired Janeth, I still do. She is from my village and I always wanted to become a world champion like [her].”

But Jelimo’s first role model and inspiration has always been her mother, a retired athlete, who competed in the 200m race in Kenyan and African competitions.

“Perhaps I can say that running is in my family,” she says with a chuckle. “My mother encouraged me to take up running seriously from when I was in primary school.”

It was her running that kept her in high school.

“I’d often have problems paying my school fees. But the school would always reconsider about sending me home because I was the school’s best runner. The school had to retain me and that saw me through high school,” Jelimo says.

Bringing gold home

Jelimo is confident about bringing home the gold from the Beijing Olympics. And so is her coach, Peter Mathu.

Jelimo says she is determined to bring home a gold medal

“Jelimo is a high class athlete,” he says.

“I have great hopes in her. As a matter of fact, I am expecting her to break the world record in the 800m race.”

Mathu added that while she has outpaced her teammates by about 30 seconds, stiffer competition from the world’s finest athletes in Beijing will likely push her to greater heights.

Looking forward to participating in the Olympic games for the very first time, Jelimo says she is poised and determined: “I have worked really hard for this … have to push hard until the last minute. You have to keep at it until you achieve what you want to achieve.

“I want to get nothing less than the gold for my country.”

Photos by Stephen Digges

Source : Al Jazeera

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