Vivian, Malot and Kitum among stars who represented Kenya at a very young age in major contests.
Check out the athletes’ bio data at the World Athletics portal and you will certainly be taken on a mental flight back to Kenya.
And two words – talent and determination – will no doubt race through your mind.
This is the narrative that drove some of Kenya’s world-beating athletes into the sport at a very young age.
From Olympic 5,000m champion Vivian Cheruiyot, who was disallowed into the 1997 world cross-country junior team because she was under-age, to Leah Malot who won the All Africa Games 10,000m title at the age of 15 years, the script is the same.
Lydia Cheromei, the 1991 world cross-country junior champion, 2012 Boston Marathon winner Sharon Cherop and 2012 London Olympic 800m bronze medalist Timothy Kitum are also on the zip.
But Vivian’s rise to global fame warms the hearts of budding athletes.
Nicknamed “Kadogo” (small), Vivian is a giant in women’s long distance running.
Sample her collection card: 5,000m and 10,000m world champion (2011), Olympic gold and silver in 2016, a former world cross-country junior and senior champion and former London Marathon winner.
Her giant strides to the pinnacle of world distance running started in tears in 1997.
Then she was a Standard Four pupil at Chemwabul Primary School in Keiyo South. Her performance then was good enough to have her compete in the 1997 national cross-country championships trials and proved it when she won the junior race at the Ngong Race Course.
But at 14, she was considered under-age and disallowed from joining Kenya team that was headed to Turin, Italy.
She was to finally make her debut in the national colours the following year when she finished fifth at the world cross-country championships in Marrakech, Morocco.
Vivian, who is a Chief Inspector of Police attached to Directorate of Criminal Investigations, trains mainly at her rural home. And standing along the Elgeyo escarpment on the sidelines of Toroplong’on village in Keiyo South most mornings, you will always meet a group of athletes, bodies glistening because of the sweat.
All are dressed in running gear –full track suits, bikers, singlets and T-shirts. As their feet pound the ground in yet another season, there is nothing to distinguish one runner from the other. In fact, you will fail to notice Vivian at first glance.
Standing at five-feet, one-inch, she is indeed diminutive. But a second glance will reveal a smooth running female with easy steps and economical movement of the arms and a text book long distance running style. The bobbing pony tail, her hairstyle, somehow makes her stand out.
A third look and you may begin to notice the imperceptible signs that she is indeed special. Other runners seem to want to run in her strides while others congregate around her.
“I remember bursting into tears. I was inconsolable. Here, I was the winner of national trials but unable to represent my country,” Vivian, as she is popularly known, recalls.
Vivian was born on September 11, 1983, and is the third child in a family of eight. She started training while herding the family’s goats at the nearby Kaptagat Forest and walking to their ancestral farmlands in Kerio Valley.
On the other hand, Malot’s athletics CV offers refreshing, heart-warming and inspiring experiences to the current athletes.
She picked up athletes in 1981 while a Standard Four pupil at Chepkero Primary School in Elgeyo Marakwet and made the team to the 1987 All Africa Games in Nairobi, where she won gold.
At the All Africa Games competition, then aged 15, she was in the squad with three-time world 1,500m champion Asbel Kiprop’s father David Kebenei, who wound up fourth in 1,500m at the All Africa Games.
Also in the mix were the late Some Muge (10,000m), father of 2008 world junior 5,000m silver medalist Mathew Kisorio, 2013 Paris Marathon winner Peter Kimeli and former Africa cross country junior champion Nicholas Togom.
Lydia Cheromei made the national team to World Junior Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria in 1990 as a 13-year-old.
She went into annals of history as the first Kenyan woman to win gold at the World Cross Country Championships in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1991.
Cheromei is still an active athlete, having finished second at the 2019 Eldoret City Marathon.
Sharon Jemutai Cherop, the 2011 world marathon bronze medallist, pulled all stops to break the jinx when she made the national senior team at a young age – despite a glut of talent swirling around the national trials.
Most other athletes struggle to wear the national jersey for many years, with some realising their ambitions when they are almost 30 years old.
At the age of 15, Cherop beat all odds to pick the bragging rights for the Seventh All Africa Games in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1999.
Before taking up athletics, she braved the cattle-rustling area to shine in world long distance running.
She discovered her athletics skills while herding goats at her rural home in Elgeyo Marakwet, the spiritual home of world’s 3,000m steeplechase stars.
This partly made her rise faster to global fame and it is clear the challenges hardened her.
She used to walk over six kilometres to Tirap Primary School in what would prepare her for her future career.
Her experiences are similar to those of 2011 world 1,500m silver medalist Silas Kiplagat, who also comes from the same area.
During weekends, Cherop herded goats deep in the bushes. Cherop and Kiplagat are neighbours in Iten.
But Cherop, a second child in a family of four, had all her siblings taking up athletics and needed little inspiration from outside to take up the sport.
Like her elder sister Jennifer and younger sibling Beatrice, all competed in 5,000m and 10,000m races.
Kitum, a former volleyball school captain at Marakwet High School, ascended to the pinnacle of 800m race like a rocket.
At 17 years, he stunned the world when he won London Olympic Games 800m bronze medal behind Botswana’s Nijel Amos and world 800m record holder David Rudisha.
Not bad for a boy who used to herd their family’s goats in Chesoi village in Marakwet East and had his neighbour Moses Kiptanui, the three-time world 3,000m steeplechase champion, as his best sportsman.
Kitum is among a handful of Kenyan athletes who switched from other sports into athletics.
His rural home neighbours, world 1,500m silver medallist Silas Kiplagat and world marathon bronze medalist Sharon Cherop, were versatile football strikers.
Two-time marathon champion Edna Kiplagat and former world cross-country champion Florence Kiplagat were also footballers while Nixon Chepseba, the former Diamond League winner, was a volleyball left attacker.
While in Form Four in 2011, Kitum launched his international running career and ran 1:45.8 to win the Kenyan trials for the seventh IAAF World Youth Championships in Lille, France.
He then bagged silver from world under-20 championships in Barcelona in 2012 and later, a bronze at the Olympics.
Kitum, who works at the Kenya Defence Forces, finished outside the medal bracket at the IAAF World Indoors in Istanbul, Turkey, in 2012.