Rio 2016 Olympic gold medallist Faith Kipyegon has made a blistering start to the COVID-19 disrupted season, including coming under a second away from breaking the 1,000m world record. Now she has her mind set on defending her title in Tokyo, before shifting her focus to the 5,000m.
While recent times have seen much doubt and uncertainty following the COVID-19 outbreak, one thing has been reassuringly consistent:
When Faith Kipyegon runs, Faith Kipyegon wins.
Kipyegon has come tantalisingly close to breaking a world record, not once, but twice over the past month. At the Monaco Diamond League meeting she was a second short of breaking the 1,000m world record, finishing the race in an astonishing 2:29.15. The following week in Brussels, she once again raced the 1,000m distance, crossing the line in 2:29.92 just shy of Svetlana Masterkova's 2:28.98 mark set in 1996.
On 8 September, Kipyegon returned to her favoured distance of 1,500m, and made it a cool three from three, cruising to victory in a time of 3:59.05 - both a season’s best and a meeting record.
So far, she’s made everything look easy. It hasn’t been, of course.
“It wasn’t nice training alone,” Kipyegon explained when describing her training regime over the past weeks. “We are still in isolation, training by ourselves… and I really thank God because I just did marvellous in Monaco, going there with a small speed work and also doing a lot of endurance, and it was really, really good for me and it was amazing.”
A great training with the greats
In 2019, Kipyegon made the switch to train under Patrick Sang in the now-legendary camp in Kaptagat. It has become a breeding ground for champions, and her training partners now include marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge and half marathon world record holder Geoffrey Kamworor.
Unlike other athletes, Kipyegon, who gave birth to her daughter in 2018, travels between her home and the camp where she trains six days a week. And if you thought she’d be taking a break after her efforts in Europe, you couldn’t be more wrong.
Two days after her Monaco triumph, Kipyegon was back in training, putting in the miles on the famous red-soiled roads in the Kenyan highlands.
“After Monaco, I just came back. I arrived on Sunday and Monday I was on the long run in the morning. And then on Tuesday I was in the track, and today I was on the long run. I still have three days and then have a rest on Sundays,” explained Kipyegon.
The recent move to Kaptagat certainly seems to have suited Kipyegon, who has been motivated by the athletes around her. The group share training tips, words of encouragement and tales of past experiences to help each other gain the small margins needed to succeed at the highest levels of sport. But at the centre of everything are two simple things: hard work and discipline.
“I’ve been with world-class athletes like Eliud Kipchoge, like Geoffrey Kamworor, and I’ve always been close with them because they are stars," said Kipyegon. "And I’ve gained a lot from them. I’ve gained moral support from them and also they talk about discipline most of the time and also working hard.”
The quiet confidence of an Olympic champion
Kipyegon is both humble and modest when she talks about herself. But beyond her pleasant character there is a steely self-belief that drove her to gold medals at both the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and the 2017 World Championships in London.
In the 1,500m final in Rio many pundits predicted a win for Genzebe Dibaba, the then world record holder from Ethiopia. But even though she hadn't yet won a senior title, Kipyegon was confident in her own ability to triumph.
“In 2016, when I was going to Rio, I was really in good shape and I was prepared for the Olympics. So I knew whatever was going to happen there, I'm in good shape and I'm going for the gold medal. I’m not going to go back home without the gold medal,” explained the athlete from Bomet, Kenya.
“I was really in good shape and he [Kipyegon’s former coach Bram Som] told me ‘we are in 2016 and we have to do a marvellous thing here in Rio’. And I believed in myself.”
In the end, the final wasn’t even close. Kipyegon streaked away from a field that also included current rivals Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands as well as Laura Weightman and Laura Muir of Great Britain to win in a time of 4:08.92.
“I was so happy. I didn’t believe… that I was the one winning the gold medal. It just came like a surprise for me and it was really super."
“Actually, for me getting that gold medal was everything in my life, so I was so happy.”
Returning from childbirth stronger than ever
In 2018, Kipyegon became a mother for the first time. It is a role she loves: “It’s really nice when I see my daughter running around and calling me ‘mamma’. So it just gives me motivation to work hard for her future.”
And while Kipyegon explains it’s not easy to balance raising a family with living the life of an elite athlete, she is quick to acknowledge the difference having the support of those around you makes to female athletes wishing to return to their careers after motherhood.
“It's not easy to balance life as a real athlete... because you have to balance both as a mother and as an athlete. So it’s not easy."
“To tell the truth it was not very easy to come back. But I thank God I got supportive people to support me, my manager, my coach - I really thank them, because if it was not them I could not come back. Because most of the women athletes, if they do not get big support they can’t come back very quickly.”
Still, her return to elite competition has been nothing short of spectacular. At the 2019 World Championships in Doha, a year after giving birth, Kipyegon won the silver medal in a national record of 3:54.22. A year on, and in close to the form of her life, Kipyegon can begin dreaming about the big one: next year’s Games in Tokyo.
“We hope the season goes smoothly, and for me I hope for the best, for a quick time, and looking forward to the Olympics next year in a super way,” said Kipyegon enthusiastically.
Future plans for 5,000 metres
When it comes to next year’s Games, Kipyegon’s goals are simple: To defend her title in Tokyo. But next year’s Olympics may also be the last time we see the 1,500m maestro race at that distance.
“Hopefully I want to defend my title before I shift to 5,000m, because I want to shift to 5,000m in the future. I want to defend my title in the 2021 Olympics and hopefully I will do my best.”
For now, Kipyegon is concentrating on continuing the excellent form she has shown this season, before the true test of Tokyo 2020 begins on Monday 2 August 2021.
Until that time, she will continue with her mantra of hard work and discipline - traits that have seen her turn into one of the greatest runners in the world.