Perhaps she would have disappeared to oblivion if it were not for some swift action from a former Kenya Defence Forces athletics coach who has helped nurture some of Kenya’ stop athletes.
After passing out from Kenya Defence Forces Recruit Training School (RTS) in Eldoret in March, 2009, Hellen Obiri would drop athletics for two years after she was posted to the Laikipia Air Base.
A product of Riruta Central High School, an institution that is best regarded as Nairobi’s hub for athletics, she had shown potential having represented her school to the national level in 200 and 400 metres.
At Riruta, she brushed shoulders with some of Kenya’s top elite athletes like Mary Keitany, who has won the London Marathon three times and New York City Marathon four times.
Besides Keitany, the 2009 World Half Marathon Championships gold medallist, Riruta Central has produced world beaters like two-time world under-20 Championships’ 3,000m steeplechase champion Cellphine Chespol, 2018 Continental Cup 3,000m steeplechase medallist Winfred Mutile and Esther Chemutai, just to mention but a few.
Hellen Obiri’s father loved athletics to the core.
He wanted some of his children to take up the sport, but it’s her fourth born daughter, who showed potential owing to her swiftness in doing things. This is the potential Mzee Isaac Obiri was determined to explore and bring out. He would occasionally send her to attend to family chores far away so as to test her athletics ability and she didn’t disappoint.
He would reward her with several pairs of rubber shoes and that brought out the excitement to see her try out as many events as possible ranging from race walk, 5,000m and triple jump during sports break at Ikionga Primary School, Kisii County.
In some cases, teachers would bar the Standard Seven pupil from competing in 5,000m and 10,000m races, but she would, somehow, sneak in at the start of the races and would go on to win some to the amazement of teachers. Her father would religiously accompany her to primary school zonal and district level athletics championships where she competed in race walk and 10,000m events.
“People thought my father was one of the teachers. I never took any other sport apart from athletics when I joined Kenya Defence Forces,” says Hellen Obiri, who would take up netball upon passing out.
Obiri would then participate in the inter-units championships for over one year, something that really bothered then KDF coach Sam Maina, who had followed her progress at high school events.
“I simply failed to understand why Obiri would dump athletics when she had the talent… why she settled for netball has always amazed me to date,” says Maina, adding that Obiri had trained in Nyeri with KDF athletes as a civilian upon completing school but would eventually be recruited.
“I summoned her from one of her netball matches. I was straight with her. That I wanted her back in athletics,” explains Maina adding that being the obedient girl she has always been, Obiri obliged.
Maina notes that Obiri had gained some weight and one would have mistaken her for some footballer or boxer.
“I gave her a basic program for speed so as to shed off some weight. Our target was 800m,” says Maina explaining that Obiri moved to KDF training camp in Ngong where she joined coach John “Warm Up” Muthiga’s group.
Unlike when she was at Rirura Central where she struggled to get money to buy training shoes or for transport to training at City Stadium or Nyayo National Stadium, Obiri says she was settled this time around, having started earning some salary.
Obiri, now a sergeant at KDF, would then start her 2011 season with KDF Cross Country Championships where she finished fifth and would mix 800m and 1,500m.
Maina notes that her performance and potential started to manifest.
“In Nyeri, I was training her together with distance runner Veronica Nyaruai and steeplechaser Mercy Njoroge. We sharpened and gave her good foundation and continuity,” says Maina adding that he has never seen such a great and resilient athlete like Obiri.
“She simply puts jokes aside when it comes to training, doesn’t take things for granted or get excited with some good performances.”
More so, Maina notes that Obiri rarely goes down easily and that her never-say-die attitude has worked out for her.
After the KDF cross country, Obiri wanted a management to further her athletics and that explains why she was ready when the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games 1,500m champion Noah Ng’eny approached her to join Pace Sports Management in Kaptagat, Elgeyo Marakwet County.
Promises of good races abroad saw Obiri shift to Kaptagat immediately after the KDF cross country event. At Pace Management, she met fellow soldier veteran Mark Kiptoo and police women Vivian Cheruiyot and Linet Masai.
It’s the year that Cheruiyot, the reigning Olympic 5,000m champion won the world 10,000m and 5,000m titles. Masai had bagged the world 10,000 title in 2009 while Kiptoo had the 5,000m at the 2007 before his exploits at 2011 World Military Games and 2012 Africa Championships.
“It was tough to train alongside them because they were strong but I had to hang on in there,” says Obiri adding that Ng’eny put her in Cheruiyot’s training group owing to her potential.
Ng’eny wanted Obiri pace for Cheruiyot in her 5,000m in Shanghai leg of the Diamond League but with the promise of her own race if she did well.
“I first thought Ng’eny was crazy since I had not run in 1,500m, my only experience was the 8km women’s race at KDF Cross County. I was actually put in as the second pacesetter where I was required to take the field up to 2,400m, recalls Obiri, who would embark on her first trip abroad. She paced up to 3,000m before letting Cheruiyot through to win the race in a world lead time of 14:31.92.
It’s the year that Cheruiyot posted one of her best performances as she went on to set the fastest time on American soil with victory in14:33.96 at the Prefontaine Classic before setting a national record with victory in Stockholm in 14:20.87.
Fast forward, that record stood until Obiri shattered it in Rome on June 8, 2017, with victory in 14:18.37. While Cheruiyot claimed a double at the 2011 World Championships in 5,000m and 10,000m, greenhorn Obiri faced baptism by fire in 1,500m at the same event.
But first things first. From Shanghai, Obiri wanted to run and finish her races which saw Ng’eny toss her into the uncharted waters.
Obiri headed for Dakar Meeting Grand Prix in May where she settled eighth in 800m before moving to Rabat Meeting International Mohammed VI d’Athlétisme in June where she finished fourth in 1,500m.
Obiri would finish second at KDF meeting before traveling to Brazil for the World Military Games where she shocked many by winning bronze over 1,500.
Back home, the 2011 Daegu World Championships trials-cum-National Championships beckoned.
With Obiri not having the qualifying times in 800m or 1,500m, she went to the trials with an open mind, not bothered what her lucky star would yield.
Obiri had no chance with the likes of fellow soldier, Olympic 1,500m champion Jebet Lagat and Viola Kibiwott in the mix.
“I was told victory would earn me a place in the team since I didn’t have the time. I hit the front during the trials and never looked back. I didn’t care who was in the race,” says Obiri, who shockingly won the trials.
However, Obiri was not named in the team for the Daegu Worlds owing to inexperience but later slotted back in the team after consultations by the coaches.
“The performance shocked me since I didn’t have the time, and was new in the event. People complained after I was left out but I was just okay since I didn’t have the time and that I wanted to prove some coaches wrong,” says Obiri, adding that there were still challenges in training since coaches concentrated with top elite athletes and not novices like her.
Strange enough, Obiri was the only Kenyan to reach the final but a tragedy happened. Right in the final lap, she stumbled in the middle of the pack and fell. She finished 10th.
“Actually, If I am to look at all my faces, that is the race that really inspired me, that falling wasn’t the issue but the many times you will pick up yourself to finish the race,” says Obiri adding that it’s after that race that avenues opened up to a rollercoaster of good performances.
In 2012, she went on to clinch the World Indoor Championships’ 3,000m title and would qualify for Olympics for the first time at the 2012 London Summer Games in 1,500m, after retaining the national 1,500m title and winning the Olympic trials.
“I almost quit athletics after the 2012 London Olympics. It remains my worst performance ever. I was in great shape but I suddenly ended up finishing eighth. I should have won Kenya a medal, it pains me to date since someone opportunities can come once. I can’t tell what really happened that day,” says Obiri, who has won KDF cross country five times and the national cross country title once.
In 2013, Obiri would settle for bronze in 1,500m on return at World Championships in Moscow after retaining her national title the second time and went on to win silver in 3,000m at the 2014 World Indoor Championships in Poland.
In 2015, Obiri claimed her fourth national title, her maiden Diamond League victory at Prefontaine Classic and Africa title over 1,500m before taking a maternity break in 2015 that bore her first born daughter Tania.
She would stage a comeback in 2016, winning the KDF 5,000m title to finish second at the trials for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games where she settled for silver as Cheruiyot claimed maiden victory.
Perhaps the 2017 season will remain her best since after retaining the KDF title, she won in Shanghai all in May before breaking Cheruiyot’s national record in 5,000m with victory in 14:18.37 on June 8 in Rome.
Then she would stun favourite Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana to win the world 5,000m title in London.
Obiri was in good shape, but she didn’t put her hopes high with Ayana in the field. Ayana had earlier won the World 10,000m hit 5,000m mark in 15 minutes and that gave Obiri butterflies.
“But after the semi-finals in 5,000m, I had a glimpse of hope after Ayana seemed to struggle,” says Obiri.
“As usual, the Ethiopian ejected high pace in the race during the final but Obiri stuck with her. “I could hear her breathing style and I knew she would tire and I had a better kick. I didn’t want to lose her going into the final lap,” says Obiri who shot past Ayana with 300m to go to win.
“That race still shocks me to date. It remains the best race ever for me,” explains Obiri, adding that she might have retained her title in Doha last year but the feeling from London was still overwhelming.
Obiri had won the Africa, Commonwealth and Continental Cup titles in 2018 before setting the stage for the 2019 season where she competed at the National Cross Country and World Cross Country for the first time, winning in both occasions.
Obiri thought that the opportunity she had been waiting for had dawned since she had not competed in the two events.
Obiri and the rest of the Kenyan contingent never knew what awaited them in Aarhus, Denmark for the world cross, the toughest course perhaps in the history of the event.
Only Obiri and Beatrice Chebet (World Under-20) won gold medals with Geoffrey Kamworor, who was going for his third title, settling for bronze.
“The course was hilly. The steep slopes, the mud, sand and small lakes made it incredibly tiring. My body pained for two good weeks. I doubt If I would agree to compete in such conditions again,” says Obiri, who has now set her sights on the Olympics and the 5,000m (14:11.15) and 10,000m (29:17.45) world records.
MOVE TO ROAD RUNNING
“I had many plans this year including an assault at the Olympics 5,000m and 10,000m titles. I wanted to beat the 5,000m world record after I failed in 2018 but Covid-19 happened. I hope all will be well in 2021,” says Obiri, who plans to officially move to road running after the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.
“Age is fast catching up and there will be more youngsters springing up in 5,000m in 2021. I think I have had enough of track and I need to give them a chance.”
Obiri attributes her success to sheer determination, hard work, discipline and a supportive family. “I really thank God for that since my graph has always been on the rise, it has never tipped,” says Obiri noting that it’s not always about the geographical set up, tribe or race for one to excel but setting up goals and striving to achieve them.
Obiri says her husband Tom Nyaudi, daughter Tania and father have been her pillar in her athletics career.
“You can’t succeed if there is no peace in the house. It’s tough being female and married but they have always given me ample time and understanding especially when I am away for long,” says Obiri, who is also coached by Nyaudi and managed by Ricky Simms of Pace Sports management.