Joshua Cheptegei: Story of tragedy, triumph

Legend. Joshua Cheptegei won the 5,000m to add to his silver in the 10,000m in Tokyo, Japan, becoming the first Ugandan to win two medals at the same Olympic Games. PHOTO/AFP. 

What you need to know:

  • There is no Ugandan who has won medals at all major championships like Cheptegei which makes him valid in the argument about being the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T).

As the day drew closer, the pressure was mounting. Joshua Cheptegei knew he had to deliver. He had to win the 5000 and 10000 metre races to cement his legacy.

The nation was praying. The nation was hoping. He got silver in the 10,000m and gold in the 5,000m. Before that, the world was watching for the name he has made for himself.

This success took me back to a discussion I had with him on a chilly evening more than two years ago in Kapchorwa District where his training camp is based.

The Nike and Uganda flag labels on his black tracksuit jacket became more visible as he emerged from the pitch-dark compound into the well-lit living room of Kingoo Cottages in Kapchorwa Municipality.

On this wet and cold June 2019 evening, Cheptegei – in his distinct tenor voice - had called out my name from the distance.

Magical drink

“Can you imagine every time I carry this drink you are in the area? You man you have some funny ancestors,” he cheekily said, as a fellow trainer emerged behind him carrying a 10-litre jerrycan of Lakwek, a local drink made out of honey and forest herbs, that many Sabiny savour.

It is famed for treating many illnesses (no medical proof) yet it is fun to enjoy in social gatherings among those who do not cherish alcohol.

I had been to the cottages with my brothers Joram Kissa and Aggrey Chepsikor to keep away the brutally chilly evening.

We quickly exchanged pleasantries with the athlete and arranged seats near the smoldering chimney at the centre of the living room.

He is easily likeable, social, intelligent, and is a basketful of stories, yet extremely disciplined.

He reads a lot, follows current affairs religiously; he easily drifts from one conversation in politics, to another on international affairs, to another on music, nature, money and sports.

He doesn’t waste time to have a go at my profession.

Mudslide- prone

“There’s a person from your competing media house that reported a mudslide in the dry season. He said my village chairperson had died in the disaster yet all people were alive and nothing of the sort had happened,” Cheptegei said.

The group burst out into laughter as I tried to redeem the profession. I learnt that the particular media house had retracted the story and relieved the reporter of his noble duties.

The evening was getting warmer. After a winding chitchat, we inevitably got to discuss sports. Cheptegei, who had sat next to me, would be the lead discussant on this – no brainer.

“All you need in this sport is focus and a lot of discipline,” then-22, Cheptegei said while holding the sides of his face to illustrate the point.

He continued: “In this field, my dream is to break every record there is. After the track, I will join marathon. I want to go after all records there as well.”

To us, his homeboys, the weight of this could easily pass with the blowing cold. Yet that was a pregnant statement from a man with the world at his feet.

But what has his story been like?

Not all was golden when Cheptegei started out in early 2013. After being encouraged to pursue athletics by his head teacher at MM College Wairaka in Jinja District, Cheptegei had joined Bugema University outside Kampala with the aim of making it big on the track.

He wasn’t from a wealthy family, so even affording running shoes was difficult. One day, he walked to a market in Kampala and acquired a pair of running shoes. 

Joshua trained on bumpy surfaces, suffered bruises to his ankles because he ran in poor grade running boots during trials for World Junior Championships in Kampala in 2014. He was denied a place on Team Uganda.

“A certain soldier pleaded I get included on Team Uganda with the hope that my ankles would have healed,” he said.

Then, he was only included in Team Uganda on goodwill, though he went on to emerge at the top and finished 6th overall among East African competitors.

His stellar run won admiration of a scout from NN Running Team (Global Communications), a professional running outfit based in The Netherlands, who quickly signed him up.

“After the race, someone walked to me and said a professional body wanted to sign me up. I listened to him and took up the opportunity immediately. They gave me a bag full of Nike kit. Man, they were so comfortable,” he reminisced.

A few months later in early 2014, he got in touch with the managers in Netherlands. They booked him for the Bangalore World Championships in Karnataka, India.

Eighth place finish

“It was a 10km run. My manager told me to just finish seventh and below. That way I would be guaranteed a prize, starting from $2,000 (about Shs5m then).

“At 5km, we were nine at the front. I said to myself that I should strive to be seventh so that even if someone comes from behind I will become eighth. After 7km, we were five left. I got more gas. At the end, I came second and bagged $10,000 (Shs28m then).

“I had never seen Shs28m in my life. Not even in my dreams. I went back home and improved my parents’ house, built a temporary structure for myself and invested the rest in myself.

“Management told me to use all of it for myself,” he said, adding. “But I had seen a problem. My siblings were struggling with fees. I cleared some of it and reclaimed land that my parents had mortgaged in order to get fees; it is why I buy a lot of land.”

Cheptegei cut the conversation short. That evening, he retreated early because he had to wake up at dawn to go for training.

At sunrise the next day, Cheptegei and a host of other athletes had done an impressive 27 km run across the mountainous Kapchorwa town up to Kwoti Sub-county. He wore a loose jacket over tight bikers, lime green socks and white sports shoes.

Idolising Bekele

Statistics speak volumes about the young man, a teetotaler – a trait he took from his father who spends his time between church as a leader and school as a teacher.

His idol is Ethiopia’s Kenenesa Bekele – a man who has done and seen it all on the track and on the road; and Cheptegei does not only want to emulate him, but to outshine Addis Ababa’s finest athlete.

Cheptegei has already dethroned him as the 10,000m and 5,000m world record holder.  But Bekele remains the Olympic record holder.

In just three years, Cheptegei has become the 10,000m, 5,000m, 5km, and 15km world record holder, World Championships and World Cross Country champion, and a double Commonwealth gold medalist. And now an Olympic champion.

Compliments

In the eyes of the 5,000m Diamond League commentator in Monaco, France, Cheptegei is superhuman. And in the view of marathon king Eliud Kipchoge, Chep – as he is fondly known - is poetry in motion.

In the veins of United Kingdom’s greatest export on the track Mo Farah, Cheptegei is a pain in the neck; he is the man to watch over the distance in the years to come. “Cheptegei is strong,” Farah told the UK’s  The Guardian newspaper in 2017. “He’s the one coming through.”

Cheptegei’s childhood friend Joseph Araptai says he is the most talented athlete he has ever seen. And coach Benjamin Njia opines that Chep is “a machine with a new engine. A track monster!”

Yet those praises and achievements are a great contrast to the jeers and humiliation he received after he threw an almost 100 metre lead in the last lap to lose the World Cross Country Championship race to Kenya’s legend Geoffrey Kamworor in Kampala in 2017.

Until then, many people did not know him. He was just a simple lanky long distance runner from Kapchorwa lurking in the shadows of star boys Moses Kipsiro and Stephen Kiprotich. 

Kololo failure

Unknown to the ecstatic crowd that included President Museveni and First Lady Janet Museveni cheering him on, a stitch had dealt their only hope for gold a heavy blow in the scorching sunshine.

He wilted, burnt out and with an overheated engine, stumbled onto the finish line as a typical sportsman. He came 30th.

The home crowd walked home crestfallen; what had started as an exciting day ended in gloom – and in tears for some. 

Life – and the public; his own home fans – had thrown lemons at Cheptegei. But what he chose to use those lemons for, is what tells a different narrative today. We can now sip on lemonade of world records and Olympics success where he was a favourite for the gold medal!

“It took me some weeks to get over [the Kololo mishap]. When I met friends they felt sorry for me, but when they asked me I would feel bad because they made me remember what happened,” Cheptegei, a soft spoken boy from Mt Elgon hills, told World Athletics later.

He told this newspaper that social media had been very brutal to him. He read most of the jibes, mockery, insults, and a few encouraging messages on the platforms. “Sometimes I didn’t feel like meeting people.”

“I was so strong. I felt I had the gold coming until the last lap when I felt a stitch. It hurt so badly but I wanted to finish the race whatever the case,” he said.  “But this also gave me energy to prove critics wrong. I knew I should be the best in this field. I went back home in Kapchorwa and resumed training.

Silver, then gold

“That year we had the World Championships in London where I had to take on Mo Farah and I needed to prepare well. I wanted gold but narrowly lost to Farah and settled for silver. It is the gold medal that I reclaimed last year in Doha,” he added.

For the medal he missed in Kampala, he ruthlessly took it with 31:40, with teammate Jacob Kiplimo coming second with 31:44 and Kenya’s Kamworor served his own medicine this time round finishing third with 31:55, in 2019 Aarhus, Denmark.

But his first major success came in 2014 when he won world junior gold in Eugene, USA. That’s when he registered his name among the elite athletes and starting cashing in on the God-given talent.

He got a chance to meet President Museveni at State House Entebbe and was given a token and a saloon car.

He treasures it so much that even after a life threatening accident in Kapchorwa Town in late 2018, he asked the mechanics to ensure it was back on the road. That is his pet he uses to drive home every day after training.

African gold

Cheptegei had announced his arrival. In 2015 he took gold over the same distance at the African Junior Championships.

Uniquely, Cheptegei had set both eyes on books and sports. It is no wonder that he embraced athletics at a later stage compared to those before him.

It is while at university that he took matters seriously - a relatively late age compared to other elite athletes – although he had been taking part in school competitions.

Like the athletes before him, the destination for training had to be in Kaptagat, Kenya, where great training facilities are in abundance.

In 2015, he sought tutelage under the ambitious and expert wings of Patrick Sang, the man who has seen the likes of Kipchoge and Kamworor work up crowds with their exploits in the endurance races.

Once in Kaptagat, Cheptegei knew his days were numbered. It was not a sustainable project; he had to return and train from home despite the lack of facilities. He also had a duty; to inspire and groom talent.

He finished outside the medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics – coming eighth in the 5,000m and sixth in the 10,000m, the first result from a home training schedule.

He had saved some money from the different races.

Own training centre

Cheptegei now decided the matters of his business would be settled at home. He started training from Kapchorwa and began the Cheptegei Christmas run that features children.

Despite the ongoing works on the government-funded Kiprotich High Altitude Training Centre in Kapchorwa District for Ugandan athletes, Cheptegei built his own Joshua Cheptegei Training Camp less than two kilometres away in Teryet Sub-county.

“I needed an immediate training facility to help me with great training sessions as Teryet [high altitude training centre] is still far from completion. You know talent wanes with age,” the long-distance runner told this newspaper.

Afro Construction Company, owned by his wife and mother of two Carol Kamari Cheptegei, a civil engineer, executed the project that started on November 20, 2018.

Cheptegei said the camp cost just over Shs300 million, way below the Shs25 billion high altitude-training centre being worked on by government.

The camp sits on more than 10 acres bordering Mt Elgon National Park, which he purchased from residents. It lies some 2,450m above sea level and is 10 kilometres from Kapchorwa Town.

“My main objective is to tap the vast talent in Sebei [sub-region] and elsewhere, promote sporting skills among youth, promote tourism and attract investors to Sebei,” the six-foot athlete said.

Mansion

In a period of five years, Cheptegei has put up a five-bedroom storeyed mansion where he lives with his children and wife in Central Division, Kapchorwa Municipality.

He also recently acquired acres of land in the municipality and bought off a school in the heart of Kapchorwa town, which is valued at Shs1 billion.

We may not have facts on how deep his pockets are, but the actions speak louder.

He hopes to join the lucrative marathon circuit after the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Cheptegei joined police five years ago, and was promoted from a Special Police Constable to Inspector of Police, leaping up four ranks, following the Commonwealth Games double gold in 2018.

When we finally write the history books, Cheptegei’s name will be high up on the wall of fame as one of Uganda’s greatest athletes ever. He just needed an Olympics gold medal to cement that place. That was his moment of truth yesterday.

And like Kipchoge says, the man who loves literature, is indeed poetry in motion!

CHEPTEGEI FAMILY

Born to Irene Chemusto and Stephenson Munerya on September 12, 1996, in Kasewu, Cheptandan Village, Kwoti Parish, East Division in Kapchorwa District, Cheptegei started school in Mengya Boarding Primary School.

He would join Town View Secondary School for O-Level until 2010 before travelling hundreds of kilometres away to further his education in Busoga at MM College Wairaka in Jinja District, completing in 2012.

In 2013, Cheptegei joined Bugema University to study a Literature in English and English Language degree but did not go beyond second year after he decided to commit to the track.

SEBEI, HOME OF TALENT

 Some of the athletes  to come from Sebei include  Boniface Kiprop,  Moses Kipsiro, Stephen Kiprotich, Stella Chesang, Jacob Kiplimo,  Joshua Cheptegei, Isaac Kiprop, Abraham Chepkwirok, Martin Toroitich, Albert Chebutai, Peruth Chemutai, Esther Chebet, Kibet Mande Abdallah,  Sarah Chelangat, Juliet Chekwel, Felix Chemonges, Solomon Mutai, Fred Musbobo, Geoffrey Kusuro, Jakcson Kiprop, Robert Chemonges, Sbel Sikowo, Rachael Zena Chebet, and Leni Shida.

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