The Irish Priest Who Trains Olympic Gold Medalists

How Brother Colm O'Connell became the guru of Kenyan running

Brother Colm O'Connell with his athletes in Iten, Kenya.     Photo: Brendan Bannon

David Rudisha winning the 800 meters

David Rudisha winning the 800 meters at a 2011 meet in London.

Runners training

Runners training on Iten's dusty roadways.

ON THE EVENING of August 9, eight skinny, limber men will line up on the red rubber track inside London’s Olympic Stadium and await the pistol in the 800-meter final. All things being equal, this is what will happen next.

David Rudisha, a six-foot-three Kenyan Masai with dark skin and haughty cheekbones, will start hard. Rudisha, 23, is the world champion, the world-record holder (1:41.01), and the clear favorite for Olympic gold. He knows only one way to race, hitting the front early and destroying his competition with raw speed.

Naturally, Rudisha’s opponents will attempt to stifle this tactic. His main rival, an affable, gap-toothed Sudanese named Abukaker Kaki, told me recently that if he is to win gold, he needs to take control at 200 meters and box Rudisha in. The Kenyan had beaten him too many times the same way, and the Olympic final would be Kaki’s best opportunity to try something different. “If you keep getting punched in the face, eventually it’s your fault, not his,” said Kaki’s coach, Ibrahim Aden, clarifying the point.

In truth, there isn’t much Kaki or any other contender can do to avoid a knockout. Like Usain Bolt in the 100, Rudisha towers over his fellow athletes. He possesses a gorgeous, loping gait—the stride of a fearless child running downhill. If he is in peak form, the only place he will see his opponents during the race will be on the JumboTron.

Meanwhile, should Rudisha win, his longtime coach, the man largely responsible for the Kenyan’s powerful, front-running style, doesn’t even plan to be in the crowd to congratulate him. Indeed, his coach, a 63-year-old Irish priest named Brother Colm O’Connell, probably won’t even be on the same continent. He’ll be 4,000 miles away, sitting on a barstool at the Kerio View Hotel in Iten, Kenya—a village perched on the western escarpment of the Great Rift Valley—watching events unfold on television. “I’m not so attached that I have to go and see them winning races,” said O’Connell of Rudisha and the other athletes he coaches, including Olympic middle-distance hopefuls Augustine Choge and Isaac Songok.

It was March, and we were sitting in the hotel where O’Connell told me he’ll watch the Games. A ravishing scene lay behind him: cloud shadows dotting the valley floor. O’Connell was describing his coaching style—a free-form, instinctive approach that’s as unusual in modern professional sports as it is successful. O’Connell, who receives no money for his coaching work, loathes the cult of analysis—all the metrics like VO2 max and stride length—that dictates the regimens of most of today’s elite athletes. “If it works, it works,” he told me. “Why must we analyze everything?”

O’Connell prefers to train his athletes by feel, not by numbers—and it’s hard to argue with the results. Since he began working in Kenya in 1976, 25 world champions and four Olympic gold medalists have come through Colm’s programs, making him, by almost any measure, the most successful running coach in history. It’s a record that doesn’t seem to square with the person sitting across from me: a short, potbellied man wearing a blue diamond-patterned sweater stained with a tiny reminder of breakfast. How did this Irish priest become the guru of Kenyan running? He will excuse me if I attempt some analysis.

O'CONNELL'S UNLIKELY RISE began 36 years ago, when, he says, he experienced a sort of epiphany. Born in 1949, in rural Cork, Ireland, he joined the priesthood in his early twenties and began work as a geography teacher and part-time coach at the Newbridge School, in County Kildare. In 1976, while standing on the sideline at a Gaelic football match on a miserable, rainy Irish afternoon, he was asked by an older teacher whether he would volunteer to teach abroad, in Kenya. O’Connell took a look at the weather and said yes.

Less than four months later, O’Connell arrived at St. Patrick’s, Iten, a notably successful Patrician Brothers school with a strong reputation for athletics. The next day, he was dragged to a track competition in the nearby town of Eldoret. He’d never seen a track meet before. The man who accompanied him was Peter Foster, a 21-year-old from Newcastle, England, working for Voluntary Service Overseas. Foster was temporarily in charge of track and cross-country at St. Patrick’s, and he’d been looking for someone to coach the team when his stint in Kenya ended. He fixed on the new man.

“He was a very happy-go-lucky kind of lad,” remembers Foster. “He certainly wasn’t a fitness fanatic. He knew literally nothing about athletics.”

In the Brother Colm legend, it’s often reported that his intuitive approach was born of this initial ignorance. He said as much to me. “The athletes were the only source of information,” he said. “That’s the way I was introduced to the sport.” 

Still, Foster suggests there was slightly more to O’Connell’s education than pure trial and error. In the six months between O’Connell’s arrival in Kenya and Foster’s departure, the Englishman had time to show the Irishman the ropes. Foster’s brother, Brendan, won bronze in the 10,000 meters at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, and they’d trained together as boys.

“Stan Long, my brother’s coach, basically taught us fartlek”—interval training—“hill work, long runs on a Sunday, that sort of thing,” said Foster. “That’s all I did with the Kenyans. It was a bit of a revolution, because before that they would just try and run as hard as they possibly could for the same distance every time they went out. Variety was the greatest thing I gave them. Colm just picked it up from there. He started as a willing pupil and then became an expert.”

O’Connell immediately threw himself into track and field at St. Patrick’s. Under his supervision the school became a power-house, dominating Kenyan track events throughout the 1980s and attracting some of the country’s best young athletes. One wall of the St. Patrick’s dining room is now crammed with photographs of gold-medal-winning alumni, including Wilson Kipketer, the three-time world champion in the 800 meters, whom O’Connell describes as the most graceful athlete he ever coached. In 1986, Athletics Kenya—the national track federation—asked O’Connell to select the Kenyan team for the 1986 World Junior Championships. Not knowing any better, he chose nine St. Patrick’s students. All nine came back with medals. Three years later, O’Connell had built enough of a following to spread his net, beginning twice-yearly month-long track camps at St. Patrick’s for talented kids from around the country.

In those early years, Iten, which is 200 miles from Nairobi and nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, was still a relatively unknown backwater—“a dot on the map,” says O’Connell. Today, largely owing to the success of the athletes at St. Patrick’s, Iten has become an internationally known magnet for elite distance runners. There are now dozens of coaches, running camps, and training groups in the area. Thousands of young men and women from poor families come to pound Iten’s dusty pathways, hoping they can sweat their way to a better life.

O’Connell remains one of the town’s biggest draws. In 1996, three years after he finally gave up his post as headmaster at St. Patrick’s, he began working with Kenya’s professional athletes for the first time. His initial batch included Japheth Kimutai and Sally Barsosio, who had both earned medals at the World Juniors. (Barsosio went on to win gold in the 10,000 at the 1997 world championships in Athens; Kimutai won the African games but failed to make the final of the 800 at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.) Though his coaching philosophy remained unchanged, the shift forced him to sharpen his focus.

“I polished it a bit,” O’Connell told me. “Talked a bit more to senior coaches who were coaching elite athletes.” He was suddenly aware of the seriousness of his role. “When you’re a kid in school, you have options,” he said. “You can do other things if you don’t make it. But if someone comes to you and says, ‘I want to be an athlete and that’s it,’ all other options are put aside.”

After the switch, O’Connell established a set of rules that still govern his approach. He will never coach a school-age pupil who isn’t in school full time. (“You drop out of school,” he told me, “you drop out of my program.”) He won’t coach more than four or five professionals at a time, and he’ll only coach would-be pros who came through his junior program. And he—not Athletics Kenya nor the dozens of European and American managers who have flooded into the Rift Valley looking to sign talent and make money on lucrative races—will decide his athletes’ event schedules. When I asked if this stance had ever caused any friction between him and his runners’ managers, O’Connell smiled and shook his head. “I make it very clear from day one,” he said. “Any manager who wants to work with me knows me. A young athlete has to make a choice if there’s a clash of interests. I have no problem with an athlete moving on.” Few ever do.

O'CONNELL DETESTS poring over data, and he doesn’t put much emphasis on technique, either—although his juniors learn core strength, the rudiments of Pilates, and the importance of a rhythmic gait. So what, exactly, does he offer? After all, thanks to a peculiar blend of genetics, good diet, and a cultural affinity with the sport, the Rift Valley is teeming with gifted runners.

What separates all these hopefuls from the superstars, O’Connell told me, is not talent but mental strength. And this, perhaps, is O’Connell’s gift: his ability to spot the few athletes who have the right raw material and then help them hone it. He describes this as working on the man rather than the athlete—developing the confidence and personality of the individual runner rather than the sum of his mechanical parts.

As an example, O’Connell told me about discovering David Rudisha. The first time he saw the Kenyan run was in 2004 at Kamariny Stadium in Iten, a dirt track measuring an eccentric 408 meters, with a dilapidated grandstand on one side and a dusty soccer pitch in the middle. Rudisha was 14 or 15, and O’Connell didn’t take much notice. “He was one among many,” he recalled. “The only reason you would have picked him out was that he was tall, elegant.”

The next time O’Connell clapped eyes on the boy was at a school meet the following year. Rudisha was competing in the decathlon, and he had traveled some 120 miles from his hometown in the Trans Mara District to do so. O’Connell made some discreet inquiries and discovered that there was no track team at Rudisha’s school. Not only had this teenager effectively taught himself to pole-vault, high-jump, throw the discus, and so forth, but he had shown considerable determination by traveling so far to compete.

O’Connell invited Rudisha to join his holiday track camp. Rudisha thrived in that environment, and his new coach found him a place at St. Francis, a school in Iten that, like St. Patrick’s, had a good track-and-field program. Rudisha didn’t balk at moving so far from home, nor did he protest when his new coach persuaded him that—although he preferred the 400 meters—his future was in the 800. Many coaches may have missed this opportunity, immediately pegging Rudisha as a 400-meter runner because of his size and build. (They wouldn’t necessarily have been wrong, either: Rudisha has run 45.50 in the 400, a time that would have earned him a spot in the semifinals at the 2008 Olympics.) In April 2006, however, O’Connell asked Rudisha to run an 800-meter time trial at Kamariny. On that day, he saw signs of the power-running style that would eventually destroy all comers.

Three months after his first serious 800, Rudisha won gold at the World Junior Championships. He was still a 16-year-old student at St. Francis, and O’Connell wasn’t eager to see him progress too quickly. “I wasn’t going to pressure him suddenly to become a superstar,” he said. “He just took his time and went through some difficulties.” An Achilles injury kept Rudisha out of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but 2010 was a breakout season. During one extraordinary week—in Berlin and then Rieti, Italy—Rudisha broke Kipketer’s 800-meter world record twice. At the end of the season, the 21-year-old Rudisha was named the IAAF World Athlete of the Year, the youngest ever to receive that distinction. The reward from O’Connell? A few days later, back in Iten, Brother Colm put his new superstar in a training group with teenagers. The message was clear: no special treatment, big man.

That response reflects O’Connell’s recognition of a particular truth about Kenyan runners: the greatest hurdles they overcome are not on the training ground. “Mostly, athletes come from rural peasant backgrounds,” he said. “And once money enters the equation, it can become an issue.” Sammy Wanjiru, for instance, was a Kenyan prodigy who won the marathon at the Beijing Olympics and by his early twenties had made several million dollars. In May 2011, after a night of drinking—one of many, according to those who knew him—and an argument with his wife, he fell to his death from the balcony of his house. Wanjiru was 24 when he died, and his story is not uncommon. The principal advantage of what O’Connell calls his “holistic” system is that he can spot danger signs before trouble sets in.

Despite Brother Colm’s beatific status in Kenya, he’s not without detractors. Renato Canova, an Iten-based Italian who trains many of the world’s best marathoners (and who’s a friend of O’Connell’s), gently suggests that, while the Irishman’s results in middle distances are unimpeachable, he hasn’t achieved as much at longer distances.

During a car ride to the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi, Canova told me that O’Connell “doesn’t have the long-distance mentality” and that he sometimes sends athletes to championships with too little speed endurance. He mentioned the case of Augustine Choge, one of O’Connell’s current crop, who won a handful of world junior and youth events but hasn’t, according to Canova, had the impact he should have had at the senior level. He won silver in the 3,000 meters at the World Indoors this spring, but, Canova says flatly, “Choge should be world champion.”

Still, most coaches and observers I talked with admired O’Connell’s work. Patrick Sang was a Kenyan silver medalist in the steeplechase at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Now a 48-year-old with gray flecks in his hair and a dusty laugh, he coaches middle- and long-distance runners, making him, in theory, a rival of Brother Colm’s. As he held the stopwatch for his athletes at the Chepkoilel track, near Iten, Sang pointed out that O’Connell’s lack of sophisticated methods is a good thing: a rigid approach might work the magic out of some Kenyan athletes. “If Rudisha was trained by a system to be a perfect athlete, it might destroy him,” he said. “If you get a supercoach, they only look at a blueprint—a product. Brother Colm goes to the roots. He understands people, where they come from.”

His former athletes agree. Peter Rono, an Olympic gold medalist in the 1,500 meters at the 1988 Games in Seoul and now the manager of a New Balance franchise in New Jersey, said it was O’Connell’s spirit that made the difference to him. Rono, a promising teenage athlete whose family was too poor to afford the fees at St. Patrick’s, said O’Connell personally raised funds from overseas donors so he could continue his studies. Dozens of other athletes, he said, could tell the same story.

“I don’t think I would have finished high school if not for him,” said Rono. “He gave me an opportunity to explore my talent. He told us that you can’t win by strength alone—you have to win with your head and the heart, spiritually. It’s more than training technique. That’s why he has produced so many great runners.”

O’Connell rarely talks about his own faith and spirituality. The closest he came was when I asked him to explain why he considered Rudisha a “once-in-a-lifetime athlete.” Instead of describing the runner in a string of superlatives, he told me a story about the athlete’s second world-record-breaking run, in Rieti. O’Connell was trackside for that race, and his description of it had a mystical edge. “Even though I’d coached him, I could still be mesmerized by the absolute leg-turning speed he had in that last 200 meters,” he said. “You cannot imagine a human being—”

He paused and scratched for the right words. “David has a presence in a race, not just because of his size but because of his personality. He has a hypnotic presence. Do you feel that?”  

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