Alongside King David there will always be Brother Colm. One man is the tall elegant Kenyan runner who with each race defies what can be done at 800m. The other is a small Irish catholic missionary who coaches athletics and introduced the Kenyan to the distance. And in the summer of 2012 they ruled part of world athletics together. You could be forgiven for thinking the story sounds like the plot of an uplifting sports movie because usually when people first hear of the only athletics partnership to rival Usain Bolt and Glen Mills, they can’t quite believe it.
Brother Colm O’Connell travelled to the small Kenyan village of Iten back in 1976 as a catholic missionary. Although he arrived as a geography teacher it appears that one day he just decided to become an athletics coach. What started out initially as an athletics team at his school St Patricks fast blossomed into a nationwide camp for talented runners.
“I started out with a very simple programme that gave youth athletes a positive outlook on doing something that they enjoyed. It has just grown and grown over the years. There have been plenty of athletes that haven’t lived up to their standards but I have also been lucky. The system that I was introduced to had a great tradition for sports. There was a real passion for athletics which was ideal for me because I really loved sports. When I started coaching athletics it was perfect for the area because that was the main sport that people were very enthusiastic in. The camp continued to blossom and slowly everything came together”, said Brother O’Connell.
O’Connell’s athletics camps are renowned worldwide for their staggering success rates. 60% of the athletes that have attended have gone professional and he has coached 25 world champions and five Olympic champions. Even with all the success his athletes have had the former teacher’s star pupil is undoubtedly David Rudisha.
Known as “The King” in his home country, Rudisha is perhaps the only runner on the planet whose feats can drive the magnetic Usain Bolt from the back pages. And about an hour before Bolt completed his sprint double in London Rudisha completed his own unique brace of a gold medal and world record.
“In London my main aim was to win a gold medal. That was the most important thing for me. But at the beginning of the year when I knew I was in such good shape I was looking for a very fast time and to possibly break the Olympic record. I didn’t think a world record was possible and I was just looking at the sky as I finished but then I looked down and saw that I had broken the record”, said Rudisha.
While 2012 was a year that brought more success than the two men dreamed, it also brought more pressure. Having already delivered both a world championship and a world record, logically all that was left for Rudisha was the Olympic gold. That feast or famine expectation could have weighed heavily on both coach and athlete, but O’Connell believes Rudisha handled the race perfectly.
“An Olympic year is a once in a lifetime opportunity for many people and having already been world champion and a world record holder the only thing missing for David was the Olympic gold medal. That was the focus for the whole year and he was under a lot of pressure but I think David handled it well. Having worked with him for so long there was a little inkling in the back of my mind that he could do something special. Everything came together on the day, the conditions were good and there was a strong field which is important when you are trying to break a record.”
The two men have been together since the very beginning, back when Rudisha was a 14-year-old struggling at 200m. When Brother O’Connell asked Rudisha to try to run the 800m neither could have predicted the phenomenal success that would follow. But 2012 was the year when they and the rest of the world got to witness that potential being realised.
Will Slattery is our Deputy Sports Editor
Image Credit: Fiona Hughes