Wednesday, 31 March 2010

From Goats to Gold


If ever there were proof that taking a risk and daring to dream could result in a life-changing experience, Joseph Ebuya’s story is just that. The Kenyan left his fellow cattle herdsmen and travelled over 400km to realise his love of distance running and now, just five years later in a true rags to riches tale, he is the World cross-country Champion, writes Nicola Bamford.

Relatively un-heralded before 2010, 22-year-old Ebuya first shocked the athletics world in January by annihilating ‘king’ Kenenisa Bekele; the ten-time global cross-country champion in the BUPA Great Edinburgh international, before causing an even bigger surprise - though not to himself – when emphatically taking the world title in Poland last weekend.

The modest prince glided majestically over the mud-drenched 12km course to sensationally storm to glory and establish himself as the new king of the cross. Ebuya; who prayed for the win mid-race by crossing his chest, produced a spectacular breakthrough which also led his countrymen to a resounding victory over their fierce rivals Ethiopia in the process.

Momentous achievement

It was indeed an historic day for Kenya in Bydgoszcz as they thrashed their East-African counter-parts by claiming all four individual and team titles; with Ebuya becoming the first Kenyan in eleven years to take the prestigious crown; a truly momentous achievement.

Fourth in the 2008 World cross, Ebuya explained: “I was very happy to win the IAAF World Cross Country and I am delighted to win my first major title. I had a very good cross country season over the winter and am happy to peak at the right time. I hope this is the start of a winning streak for me.”

Humble beginnings

Shy and softly-spoken, Ebuya; by his own admission, ‘had to fight a war’ to just get into his national squad for the highlight of the winter season: “I want to thank the people of Bydgoszcz for cheering me up as I was racing. I was not certain I would win but I started praying as I was racing, and I thank God that he has given me this win that I have dedicated to the Kenyans,” Ebuya revealed.

Ebuya has indeed come a long way from humble beginnings and only seriously training since 2004. Coached by Sammy Rono and Ricky Simms, Ebuya explained:

“I started running in 2004 by joining in with the PACE Sports Management runners when they went for morning runs. After a few months, they saw I had potential and invited me to come and live in their camp. I did not have money for food or running shoes and could not speak English or read and write so this was a big opportunity for me.”

Changing lives

Running certainly transformed Ebuya’s world for the better; his parents could not afford to take him to school so he stayed home to herd the family's goats.

Determined though, to grow into a champion, he trained in jeans and leather shoes in his spare time and now, following his unprecedented success, Ebuya wants to change the lives of others through the sport he holds so dear:

"I started running with little expectations. I never dreamt I could race against world beaters, although my instincts kept telling me that I would step onto the world scene. I call upon my fellow herdsmen to take up running. I'll strive to ensure that we set up an athletics training camp in Turkana and I want to change their lives."

Worthy of a movie

Ebuya’s life changed almost instantly after making the decision to chase his dream. After only a year’s training, he entered the international scene in 2006 with World junior 10,000m silver and 5,000m bronze, as well as fourth in the Commonwealth Games 5,000m in the same year – achievements which attracted sponsorship from Nike.

Though injury curtailed his World Championship ambition last summer; resulting in thirteenth place in the 5,000m, his potential was evident and the past year has witnessed a dramatic improvement courtesy of the same work ethic and dream which fuelled the ambition for the same deprived young boy who moved to Eldoret with a vision a few years ago.

Born in Nyahurunu, Ebuya shares his time between Kaptagat in his home country and Teddington, London during the summer and speaks highly of the man and solid support network that turned his life around:

“Ricky is the person who has helped me get to where I am now. He has taken me from having nothing to beating Bekele and the world’s best. He has high standards and has been telling me I can reach the top if I stay disciplined and train hard. We have a very strong team, with Usain Bolt (the Olympic and World 100m and 200m Champion and World record-holder) giving us inspiration to do well.”

Simms, in turn, has nothing but admiration for his protégé; “Joseph’s story would make a great movie one day – maybe if he wins the Olympics. Joseph was exceptional - he is one of the best examples of an athlete who had nothing. When we gave him his first shoes and track suit, he got injured immediately as he was not used to them. Running has given him a complete change of life. He has still a lot more to come if he can stay focussed and injury free.”

Dreams do come true

Ebuya; whose niece Alice Aprot-Nawowuna was ninth in the junior race in Poland, trains with world 10km record-holder Micah Kogo and World 5,000m Champion Vivian Cheruiyot in a forty-strong squad for two-to-three times per day.

From a family of eight children, Ebuya evidently feels at home in company and dreams of winning the Olympics in London 2012.

Time will tell of course, but the young man who is currently building a house and hopes to run a business in Kenya after his athletic career, has progressed beyond his wildest ambitions and has done it all so unassumingly; proving dreams really can come true.

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