He arrived in East Africa in 1976 with scant interest in athletics, but 36 years later, this Corkman, a Christian Brother teacher, is considered the foremost athletics coach in Kenya, and one of the most regarded in the world.
Under his tutelage, Brother Colm O’Connell’s protégés have garnered nine Olympic medals, five of them gold, and 25 World Championship medals. This Olympics, he is training David Rudisha, the 800 metres world record holder, who also has the three fastest world times this year. Much is expected of Rudisha in London.
Br O’Connell also has eight other runners from his acclaimed youth programme running at London 2012, including Hilda Kibet, who is running for The Netherlands, and Kenyan Edna Kiplagat, who holds a world marathon title. It’s some feat for a geography teacher who was thrown in at the deep end when he arrived in the Rift Valley.
“Less than 24 hours after I arrived at Iten, another brother just hauled me off to attend a race at the nearby town of Eldoret,” he says. “I had just arrived on the Friday and he took me off to the race on a Saturday. It was my first time ever being at a track.
“I had always loved sport. I’d played hurling and football in Ireland and coached soccer in Newbridge. I knew when I came here that the school, St Patrick’s, had a great athletics tradition. It was nearly taken for granted that I’d take up some form of coaching around it.”
There were already a few “fanatical” athletics coaches at the school, including a US volunteer with Peace Corps, Norman Thompson, and another volunteer, Peter Foster, whose brother Brendan was running for Britain in the Montreal Olympics that year. For two years, he “tagged along” with them learning about the game. When their volunteer stretch ended, they bluntly said “now you’re the trainer”.
Since then, the man from Mallow (he has three brothers and a sister living in Athlone, Blarney, Mallow, and Bandon), has “learned and learned and learned”, feeling an even greater responsibility to the athletes as the sport went professional.
“It’s about what we can do extra,” he says. “It’s not just about running. It’s about yoga, pilates, core strength exercises, flexibility work and diet.” Allegedly, at one point, Br O’Connell’s athletes were sent snorkelling regularly as he believed the activity would improve their lung aeration.
Over the years, Br O’Connell has steadily built up a stellar youth athletics training camp, where he churns out world-class athletes. He attends primary and secondary athletics competitions regularly on the scout for talent.
Up to 40 under-age runners complete his programme each year. When they are finished his course, they are then free to begin formal training with a view to professional athletics. The youth programme is Br O’Connell’s primary motivation.
Kenya has long been known as a hotbed of athletic talent, something Br O’Connell puts down to its high altitude, the outdoors lifestyle, diet, and a culture where children are encouraged to walk long distances and run from a young age.
“Some say it’s genetic and there has been lots of medical, physiological, anthropological and dietary studies into what makes the Kenyans such good athletes. I think it’s not one thing but a combination of them all.”
In Kenya, kids run miles to school barefoot. Because the terrain is also rough, they also “grow up disciplined” he says. Their diet too is “simple but wholesome”.
“There’s a culture of running here, just as there’s a culture of hurling in Kilkenny, of football in Kerry, ice hockey in Canada, basketball in the US, soccer in Brazil. One things leads to another. There’s a system in place, a fanaticism. Kids here see world champions and Olympians running here every day. There’s a culture that is handed down.”
The athletic tradition in the country aside, Br O’Connell has undoubtedly brought a whole lot more to Kenyan athletics.
“It’s how you bring it all together,” he admits. “It’s how you bring the various elements together. It’s about adding the various ingredients in the correct proportions.”
Br O’Connell is lauded worldwide, but for all his success his mission aim remains largely untrained. He won’t be in London later this week to see Rudisha run.
He has never been to an Olympics or World Championship. His aim, as it was on the first day, is to stay in Kenya and work with the youth.
“For me, it’s not about making them into superstars, it’s about making good athletes,” he says. So he’ll watch his Olympic charges, as ever, from Iten. Is he feeling nervous?
“I’m feeling a bit shaky. But then coaches are always shaky,” he laughs.
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