O’Connell still the guiding force of legends

The last time most of us saw or heard of David Rudisha and Brother Colm O’Connell, the young Kenyan was stunning the world at the London Games and the Irish missionary was looking on back in Kenya, oblivious to the plaudits being showered his way.

Yesterday, the 800m Olympic champion turned up in Dublin with the Corkman whose name has become synonymous with Kenyan track success after over 30 years coaching out of St Patrick’s College in Iten in the Rift Valley.

O’Connell has been working with the Masai 23-year-old since he was a boy but it is rare, if ever, that the pair have found themselves keeping one another company beyond their African base given the 63-year has never attended a major championships.

Today, however, the older man will receive an honorary degree from DCU and Rudisha won’t be far away. It is, he admits, something “beyond my wildest dreams” which is hardly a surprise given that when he arrived in Kenya in 1976 he knew nothing about athletics.

Football, hurling and soccer had all grabbed his attention here at home but his exposure to anything Olympic was limited more or less to the fact that double gold medallist Dr Pat O’Callaghan had hailed from just down the road.

“They say if you stay at something long enough you will succeed,” he laughed yesterday. “I kept plugging away at it since 1976. From ’72 to ’84 there were no Olympians in Kenya because of boycotts and that was a difficult time for young talent in the country.

“In a sense, that worked in my favour because I got time to adjust and there was no expectation or pressure so I fitted in very nicely to that opening. I could work at my own pace because I had no experience as a coach when I went there and I had to learn on the job.”

O’Connell soaked up as much as he could and began to add some formal athletics training to his CV in the early 1980s. By 1988, he was celebrating the success of St Patrick’s graduate Peter Rono who became the youngest ever 1,500m Olympic champion.

Multiple world and Olympic champions have followed since and Rudisha’s abilities caught the eye when he first made the journey to Iten to compete with his local team when he had never run on anything but barefoot on grass.

The main selling point for O’Connell was not so much Rudisha’s talent, but his determination. The runner noted the trees planted at Iten in honour of the school’s previouschampions and did everything he could to ensure that one would some day grow there for him too.

“The next year was when I met Brother Colm, I did not know that he saw me the year before,” he explained in his trademark whisper. “I remember the 400m in the decathlon that year. I beat the guys who were stronger than me the year before so I had already improved.”

Iten duly opened its doors.

And yet neither of them could have imagined the heights that lanky boy would hit in London earlier this year when the man from Kilgoris in the Trans Mara District ran the first ever sub-1:41 time in the 800m and headed a field with six other PBs and a season’s best.

Even more extraordinary than the time was the fact that the eventual winner led the field from start to finish to do what everyone thought was possible and overshadow Usain Bolt who was competing later in the evening in the 200m.

O’Connell had a feeling something special was brewing, he just didn’t know how special. With Britain’s Andrew Osagie running in the race and Bolt up later, the stadium was buzzing, the weather was warm and any wind that was blowing was negligible.

And then history happened.

“Winning the gold medal was a priority but a distant second was beating the Olympic record,” said O’Connell. “When he got into the stadium he felt good and I remember his agent sent me a text saying he was looking very good in the warm-up, that he might do something special.”

That makes two of them.

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