For Jacob Kiplimo, running is the only sure way of escaping from the firm grip of poverty.
Born in the remote Kween District, Sebei sub-region, the 15-year-old is Uganda’s youngest representative at the Rio Olympics.
Although still a teenager, the country’s latest running distance sensation speaks with a mind of a mature, ambitious man.
“When we return home after the Games, I plan to buy land and maybe some cows for my parents,” he says with an innocent broad smile.
Despite starting serious running last year, the youngster, who won Uganda’s only medal (5,000m bronze) at the Under-20 World Championships in Poland last month, has already discovered the gold mine that is athletics.
“I have decided to dedicate my life to running. I won’t be going back to school as earlier hoped,” revealed Kiplimo, who checked into the Olympic Village on Sunday afternoon alongside his Italian manager cum coach Guisseppe Gambrone.
Kiplimo, the ordinary boy
Until last year, Kiplimo was living an ordinary life like any other village boy. He walked several miles to Likil Primary School on weekdays and tilled the garden alongside his parents Stephen and Grace Chebet, during weekends.
Running was only a past time from his very first competition at school in 2013.
“When I was still very young, my father had many cows. I think they were about 50. But because we didn’t have enough grazing land, many of them died and he sold the others to pay our school fees,” narrated the sixth of seven children. “My father has three wives and all the women have children. My mother gave birth to seven of us and the other women also have many children so our father struggles to look after all of us,” he says.
Three of Kiplimo’s stepbrothers; Robert Chemonges, Martin Kiplagat and Victor Kiplagat are also national runners but haven’t made a breakthrough like their younger brother.
Kiplimo announced his arrival on the athletics scene when he won the National Mountain Running Championships in Kapchorwa in August last year.
Although he beat older opponents in that event, he could not be selected on the national team that represented Uganda at the World Mountain Championships in Wales the following month.
“After winning, my father helped me to get a passport because I knew I was going to compete at the world stage. But when time for travelling came, the federation (athletics governing body) told me I was too young to compete in that race,” he recalled.
Kiplimo’s life though took a turn for the better when Italian athletics manager Gambrone visited Uganda in November last year on his routine scouting missions.
Gambrone has previously handled Ugandan long distance great Boniface Kiprop and has several other Ugandan youngsters under his stable. The Italian watched Kiplimo finish fourth in the MTN Kampala Marathon (10km category) at Kololo and travelled with him to Kween the next day to meet his family.
“When I first saw Kiplimo running, I had no doubt he would become great. I quickly negotiated with his parents and Uganda Athletics Federation and they agreed that I handle him,” Gambrone reveals.
Having completed his Primary Seven only a few weeks earlier, Kiplimo boarded the plane for the first time in December last year to join Gambrone’s Tuscany Training Camp in Italy.
“Travelling in the plane for the first time was exciting and scaring,” he recalled. He was lucky to have travelled alongside a more experienced teammate in Fred Musobo, who had some experience in flying. “At first, the food in Italy tasted so different and the weather was uncomfortable,” he said.
After weeks of training and competing in several races, Kiplimo returned home early this year a changed boy. He was loaded with payments from the races in Italy.
“After every race, the manager gave us some small money. Then when we were returning home, we received a bigger amount,” without revealing the actual amounts, Kiplimo said.
Running for records
Since the turn of the year, he hasn’t done anything else besides running. While his other peers enrolled for secondary education, Kiplimo concentrated on training.
In May, to the surprise of many, he won a 5,000m race in Orvieto, Italy, becoming the youngest ever Ugandan runner to qualify for the Olympics. “I honestly didn’t expect anything like that. For me I was running with the hope of improving but didn’t see myself as an Olympic runner.”
With Olympic qualification secured, he made a stop in Poland where he registered his best career acheivement yet by securing 10,000m bronze at the World Junior (under-20) Championships.
Unlike other Ugandan teammates, Kiplimo was not allowed to return home by his manager after Poland.
Instead, he headed to Italy for training from where he connected to Rio on Sunday.
“The manager told me to train from Italy because the weather conditions there at the moment are like the ones in Rio. I miss my family but I have no option,” he offered.
After a few days in Rio, the youngster is already preparing for his 5,000m race due next Wednesday but he can’t hide his excitement of being at the Olympics.
“Everything is new for me. The people, the lifestyle and environment. But I am enjoying,” the runner, who spends most of the time locked up in his room, said.
His major target in Rio is qualifying for the 5,000m final.
Having signed a two-year professional contract with Tuscany last month, Kiplimo expects some decent paycheck after Rio and any other races he competes in thereafter.
With top-up from the national team allowances, his parents can look forward to a better life.
“I want to help my father replace his cows. Our house at home is not so good so I also hope to build them a better one in future,” he promised.
KIPLIMO AT A GLANCE
Date of birth: November 14, 2000
Place of birth: Taragon, Benet Sub-county, Kween District
Races: 1,500m, 3,000, 5,000 & 10,000
1,500m: 3:50.24 (May 7, 2016)
3,000m: 7:52.94 (June 13, 2016)
5,000m: 13:19.54 (June 10, 2016)
10,000m: 27:26.68 (July 19, 2016)
Feb 2015: 9th at National Cross-country in Jinja (junior race)
May 2015: 3rd in 10,000 during National Trials at Namboole
August 2015: 1st in National Mountain Running Championships in Kapchorwa
November 2015: Fourth in MTN Kampala Marathon (10km)
RACES IN ITALY
December 2015: 3rd in 10km road race
December 2015: 4th in Cross-country
May ( 2016: 1st in 5,000m