Doha, Qatar – In yet another glorious moment in a record and medal-laden year on the track, Kenya’s middle-distance running “queen” Faith Kipyegon completed a hat-trick of world 1,500-metre gold medals at the World Athletics Championship in Budapest this week.
The double Olympic champion has not lost over the distance for two years.
Although Kipyegon launched her season with a slightly less comfortable win at the Doha Diamond League in May, she has since vanquished her competitors and past records in an astonishing season.
In May, she crossed the finish line in the women’s 1,500-metre race in Doha in front of a large contingent of Kenyan fans bowing to her from the stands.
The 29-year-old finished the race with a time of 3:58.57, nearly nine seconds behind Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba’s world record, in one of her poorest finishes.
The wait for the world record didn’t last too long.
A month later, Kipyegon not only broke the record but also smashed the three-minute, 50-second barrier at the meet in Florence. And as soon as she crossed the line this time around, Kipyegon fell on the track and slammed her hands in an outpouring of disbelief and ecstasy.
GREATEST OF ALL TIME 🇰🇪
Faith Kipyegon is the world 1500m record holder.
— World Athletics (@WorldAthletics) June 2, 2023
“She is one 100 percent the best ever,” shouted the television commentator while the Kenyan walked over to her coach with tears running down her face.
“A world record for the greatest 1,500-metre runner of all time,” the commentator exclaimed. Few could find fault with the statement as Kipyegon has three of the 10 best finishes in the women’s race.
However, what she achieved the following week in Paris elevated her as simply one of the greatest runners of all time – in any category.
Running a 5,000-metre race after a gap of eight years, Kipyegon stunned the world as she broke the world record at that distance.
Kipyegon enjoyed a comfortable lead as she approached the finish line. Once over, she looked up to check the time and held her head in her hands in disbelief before collapsing into a heap in the arms of Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey, whose record she had just broken in 14 minutes and 5.20 seconds.
It was a race that she said she was running to simply “enjoy herself” without much prior planning.
On Saturday evening she will race in the 5,000-metre final in Budapest, hoping to add a World Championship double gold to her glittering collection.
In an interview earlier this year, Kipyegon told Al Jazeera that she has loved running since the age of five and she wants to inspire more young girls to take up the sport.
NO WORDS 😭❤️ pic.twitter.com/jQwG6AC5xh
— Faith Kipyegon (@Kipyegon_Faith) June 10, 2023
‘I’ve come very far’
The diminutive all-time 1,500-metre great grew up in western Kenya’s Rift Valley, which is renowned as a breeding ground for runners.
The world record holder’s journey began in the ever-changing muddy, dusty and hilly terrain of Ndababit village, 233km (144 miles) west of Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
“I used to run barefoot from my village to the primary school because in Kenya, schools are so far that you always end up running in order to reach them in time,” Kipyegon told Al Jazeera ahead of the Diamond League event in Doha.
“I have loved [running] since I was a little girl, but I never thought I would become an Olympic champion one day,” she said with a chuckle.
It wasn’t until she turned 15 that the girl from a family of runners – her father was a 400-metre and 800-metre runner and her sister a 10km and half-marathon specialist – began training to become an athlete.
“I was in secondary school in 2009 when, by a stroke of luck, a coach saw me and introduced me to a runner’s lifestyle. He provided me with a proper diet and everything I needed to become a professional athlete.”
According to author and running expert Adharanand Finn, most Kenyan runners come from “poor, rural families” and face difficult conditions until they achieve some success on the international stage.
“I remember reading a newspaper story about Faith almost missing the national trials as she had been badly beaten by a teacher at school”, Finn, author of the book Running With the Kenyans, told Al Jazeera.
“Thankfully she still ran and went on to win the junior world cross country,” he said.
Throwback to Faith Kipyegon winning the Kenyan national junior girls cross country in 2011, running barefoot … she went on to win the world cross country championships a month or so later, also running barefoot. A rare talent. On Friday she broke the world record in the 1500m. https://t.co/uj6uqQNMXM
— Adharanand Finn (@adharanand) June 5, 2023
Kipyegon had her first taste of international competition in 2010 when she ran barefoot at the World Cross Country Championships in Poland and ended fourth in the junior category.
A year later, at the World Youth Championships in France, the unassuming 16-year-old broke the junior world record for 1,500 metres on her way to a first gold medal.
Finn, who has been observing Kipyegon since an early age, said she has an “almost perfect running form”.
“Many Kenyans have the talent and the motivation to succeed, but Kipyegon’s fluid running action stood out and set her apart even as a junior,” he said.
It was at the 2016 Rio Olympics that the Kenyan made the world take notice of her tactical acumen as she made use of a slow start to the final race, kept up with the leaders and then sprinted past them in the final lap.
The then 22-year-old, running in her first Olympic Games, left then-world record holder Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia in her wake on the way to a strong finish that ended with her sobbing in disbelief at her Olympic gold.
Among the long list of milestones in Kipyegon’s career, winning a second Olympic gold in Tokyo in 2021 after returning from a maternity break stands out as a testament to her tenacity and single-mindedness.
Kipyegon credits motherhood and her daughter Alyn with helping her stage a competitive comeback.
“It was not easy as I could barely walk 20 minutes the first time I stepped back on the track,” she said in a social media video in 2022, as she reflected on the difficulties of returning to the track after having given birth.
“But the strength Alyn gives me has helped me overcome all challenges.”
The Kenyan star has been feted by the country’s President William Ruto, who rewarded her twin world-record runs with a house worth six million Kenyan shillings ($42,000) in Nairobi and five million shillings ($35,000) in cash.
At the ceremony in June, Kipyegon was flanked by her Olympic bronze medallist (in 800 metres) husband Timothy Kitum, her parents and four-year-old Alyn, who stole the show with her big toothy smile and mischievous antics.
Kipyegon now lives in Nairobi, is sponsored by some of the world’s biggest sportswear brands and has become a national sporting icon. She’s proud to have bought a house for her family.
“I’ve come very far,” Kipyegon said before her season-opening race in Doha, talking about the journey from running barefoot to being one of the country’s most recognised faces.
Our sportsmen and women brand Kenya globally. We will honour and reward them accordingly. pic.twitter.com/wrRGeSSmQV
— William Samoei Ruto, PhD (@WilliamsRuto) June 13, 2023
‘Girls want to grow up and be like Faith’
Caren Kibbett, a sports journalist from Kenya, told Al Jazeera that Kipyegon is among the most respected athletes in Kenya.
“She is a role model to upcoming athletes, especially girls who say they want to grow up and be like Faith.”
Kibbett credits Kipyegon’s spotless record despite her country’s recent struggle to escape bans due to a poor anti-doping record, and an athletics body embroiled in corruption charges.
“In Kenya, we call Faith the queen of 1,500 metres and now we want to see her taking on marathons and breaking more records,” Kibbett said.
Kipyegon has been looking to extend her track dominance from 1,500 metres to 5,000 metres and eventually, marathons.
Running expert Finn believes the combination of Kipyegon’s “incredibly fluid running form” and background in endurance running, rather than short-distance running, makes her the ideal candidate for a transition to marathon running.
“Like many Kenyans, her endurance is her strength, so for her to run 5,000 metres is not strange,” he said.
Less than a week after conquering the 1,500-metre record, Kipyegon said she wanted to better her own time and “break 3:49” and then venture into marathons.
“I am going to keep up with 5,000 metres and take it forward to longer distances,” she said earlier this year.
“If I stay healthy, I hope to break 3:49”
— Wanda Diamond League (@Diamond_League) June 8, 2023
Kipyegon admitted that mental strength has played an important role in making her an Olympic champion, but said “it works both ways” as sport has helped her overcome the mental challenges she faced growing up.
“Sport helped me get mentally fit and made me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile with my life,” Kipyegon said, reflecting on her journey from the days of running barefoot to being labelled the world’s greatest in her category.
Despite her success, the Olympic champion insists her work as an athlete will be incomplete unless she leaves a path for young girls to follow.
“I have to leave a legacy, it is something I need to do before I hang up my shoes,” she said.
Kipyegon is keen on passing on her insights to young athletes and helps with their mental conditioning whenever she is back at the Rift Valley camp.
Her main advice to young runners is to “block out all distractions” and stay focused on their goal.
Kibbett, the Nairobi journalist, said Kipyegon has helped maintain “depth and continuity in Kenya’s 1,500-metre legacy” by going back to the mountains where she grew up.
According to Finn, Kipyegon’s continued success will give hope to aspiring female athletes and prove that they “can step out of the normal roles and be successful”.
In a World Athletics video documentary on her legacy, Kipyegon says she wants girls to know that “sports can also be a profession.”
“I’ve been patient for the world records and this year I’ve broken three, so I want to show the young generation that this is the way to do it and motivate young women around the world.”
“Leaving a legacy will motivate young girls and women around the world.”
— World Athletics (@WorldAthletics) August 23, 2023