Almost two hours after the scheduled time, Joshua Cheptegei finally showed up for the interview on a wet Thursday afternoon.
There was little to blame the man who has stolen athletics headlines all year round. “I am giving you only five minutes because I am tired,” he said, and I consented.
It was only six hours since Cheptegei had landed at Entebbe Airport from Europe where he rewrote the 10km world record (WR) at the Valencia Trinidad Alfonso in Spain on Sunday.
“It’s been an amazing year with lots of achievements,” he said, minutes after settling in at a shade at Silver Springs Hotel as the drizzles began to fade.
Currently, Cheptegei is the name on the lips of the globe’s athletics pundits and commentators after claiming four titles in the last eight months.
“What a way to wrap up with the world record! Amazing for me,” he stated, as the man from Kapchorwa attained his best posture for the interview. “I thank my family number one, my wife, brothers, sisters, my mum and dad,” with a smile, Cheptegei remarked.
“My training partners Abdallah Mande, Stephen Kissa, Joel Ayeko and support from Stephen Kiprotich in terms of advice have been so helpful. My manager Jurrie van der Velden, my coach Addy Ruiter and physio who comes from Global Sports Communication to work on me are very supportive.”
If one did not know Cheptegei well enough prior, then 2019 offered just enough to read about the man who is nearly done with the corridors to Uganda’s G.O.A.T (Great Of All Time) status.
Simply, he is in the form of his life. First, he conquered big demons of Kololo 2017 to cross the tape first and win the country’s first-ever senior men’s 10km title at the World Cross-country Championships in Aarhus, Denmark on March 30.
Adjustment back to track did not come easy as he needed some purification before shocking the cluster of Ethiopian foes Hagos Gebrhiwet, Haile Bekele, Selemon Barega and Yomif Kejelcha to take the 5000m trophy during the Diamond League (DL) final in Zurich, Switzerland on August 29.
With that encouragement, Cheptegei knew the 10000m crown at the ensuing World Championships in Doha, Qatar was in clear sight.
And he made no mistake on the event’s last day at the Khalifa International Stadium. The Ugandan ran a well-calculated race to beat Kejelcha in the final stretch to the 25-lap title in a world leading time of 26:48.36 on October 6.
“It’s kind of difficult to ascertain to which is more important,” Cheptegei attempted to weigh his gongs of the year.
But again, almost all this could not have happened had Cheptegei not survived a serious road accident in Kapchorwa four days to Christmas last year.
“My lower back and neck were really messed up,” he recalls while moving the left hand over his face.
And that partly explains why his friend Jacob Kiplimo defeated him by 10 seconds in Tororo during the National Cross-country Championships on February 16.
Cheptegei wasn’t at his best but he drew extra motivation from the capitulation in Kololo two years to win the title in Aarhus.
“The magic was doing the right thing, believing in myself. It’s only you. No amount of negative energy or talk affects you. It’s just you!”
Burying the Kololo demons was not a cakewalk matter. “Going in Aarhus, I knew I had to prove some special that I cannot be defined by being a loser. People were seeing me as a loser. It was a mistake, normal to have one set-back.
“It made me know the real Joshua. What strength does he have? I discovered the potential that I had if well planned, prepared and trained. And I think now, no one can beat me even if I am 50 percent fit as long as I am 100 percent mentally.”
That is powerful! You may actually read it again because Cheptegei said it with utmost confidence beaming out of his blue Nike hoodie while cross-legged with distinct white and black Nike shoes.
In 2019, Cheptegei only missed out on one piece of silverware: the Male Athlete of the Year at the World Athletics Awards in Monaco, France on November 23.
Here, he was beaten by Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge who had won the London Marathon for a fourth time with a course record in April before becoming the first man to run a 42km distance under two hours.
“This year was really amazing for Kipchoge, Geoffrey Kamworor (world 21km record holder) and me. Kipchoge is an inspiration to long distance and he shows that you are not limited as long as you are focused.
To a large extent, no big disappointments. May be my time will come and I win it. The lesson I got is that I have to work harder,” he added without mincing words.
As Cheptegei arrived in Valencia last week, Great Britain’s Mo Farah announced that he would switch back from marathon to return and defend his 10000m Olympic in Tokyo, Japan next July.
Before Cheptegei’s floodgates opened with the Commonwealth double on the Gold Coast in Australia last year, he had first finished behind Farah at the London Worlds two years.
The latter switched to road where he has run four races and won the Chicago Marathon last year. Farah is rated as the most successful British athlete in modern Olympics with both 5000m and 10000m crowns in London 2012 and Rio 2016.
By the time he reunites with Cheptegei in Tokyo, Farah will be 37 and Cheptegei won’t be 24 yet. “I welcome him back to the track,” Cheptegei noted. “But it is an opportunity, if I didn’t beat him in London, now I have to do it.”
Is he still a threat though? “You never know, he has not been on track so we wait and see.”
Farah is only in the way of Cheptegei’s big goals as he aims to match the status of John Akii-Bua and Stephen Kiprotich by winning the country’s only third Olympic gold.
“I don’t want to miss this opportunity. I am the favourite in the ranking. If continue doing the right thing, it wouldn’t be a surprise winning it. I would be a complete athlete with all medals if I do it,” he stated.
Now at 23, the G.O.A.T status lies in wait but there’s more beyond that. “My dream is not small. I want to inspire the whole world. I want to try the 10000m record and try some Olympic medals.
“In the future, I want to try may be the world record in the marathon. It may sound ridiculous but I love to try become the greatest athlete in the world.”
With such a mentality, Cheptegei will first try to run a distance he has never run of 21km at the World Half-Marathon Championships in Gdynia, Poland on March 29, 2020.
“I want to go to the race and do something different where there is no pressure. May be I am on the podium, maybe I am not, maybe I win it.”
However, like many other long distance, Cheptegei will have find other ways of preparing for Tokyo after World Athletics decided to omit 5000m, 200m and 3000m steeplechase, discus and triple jump from priority events on most Diamond League Meets next year onwards.
“It’s really ridiculous and killing the sport. Probably, I am also affected,” he said. “The DL don’t have money as people perceive. I would look at it in a perspective of getting yourself prepare for the big championship and that is the most important thing we get there,” he added.
The humble lad could have spoken for more than the five minutes earlier agreed but one could reflect on his words for years to come.
CHEPTEGEI AT A GLANCE
Date of birth: September 12, 1996
Major Races: 5000m, 10000m
Personal Bests: 5000m (12:57.41), 10000m (26:48.36)
Coach: Addy Ruiter
Manager: Jurrie van der Velden
Kit Sponsor: Nike
June 13: Oslo Diamond League (2nd, 7:33.26)
June 30: Eugene Diamond League (1st, 8:07.54)
May 18: Shanghai Diamond League, (7th, 13:06.68)
July 5: Lausanne Diamond League, (4th, 13:03.59)
Aug 29: Zürich Diamond League, (1st, 12:57.41)
Oct 6: Doha World Champs (1st, 26:48.36)
Feb 17: National Cross-country (2nd, 29:07.2)
Mar 30: World Cross-country (1st, 31:40)
Dec 1: Valencia Trinidad Alfonso (1st, 26:38)