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Janeth Jepkosgei: Leading the Way for Female Track Coaches in Kenya

The 2007 world 800m champion discusses with Olympics.com her transition from running to coaching, a rare move for female athletes in Kenya. Jepkosgei is enjoying her journey and recently led the World Athletics Refugee Team at the 2023 World Championships in Budapest. 

Janeth Jepkosgei appeared to be on a path of increasing success until her career reached a crossroads.

The 800m star had just returned from competing at her fourth World Athletics Championships and looked set to qualify for her third Olympics at Rio 2016.

As she entered the twilight of her career, she knew that her upcoming races would cement her legacy in the history of the two-lap event.

She wanted another Olympic medal, more precisely, the gold.

However, after a disappointing performance in the heats at the 2015 World Championships on the same track where she’d earned Olympic silver at Beijing 2008, the Kenyan star realised there was no chance to repeat her magic in the 800m.

The pain in her leg showed no signs of relenting – an athlete’s worst nightmare.

Yet, she was completely at peace with it.

The 2007 world champion had foreseen the end, though not in this manner. Nonetheless, she was prepared for the next phase.

“In 2015, just before the World Championships in Beijing and I was honest with myself, I was getting old. I told myself, ‘Janeth, you do Beijing, and then it is time to step out of track’,” she told Olympics.com on the sidelines of the World Athletics Championships in Budapest last August.

“So when I transitioned out of that track, I moved into coaching immediately.”

Jepkosgei withdrew to her rural home of Kabirirsang, a tea-growing region in Kenya’s vast Rift Valley, and wholeheartedly embraced her new role, coaching junior athletes.

Janeth Jepkosgei with World Athletics president Sebastian Coe. 

Janeth Jepkosgei with World Athletics president Sebastian Coe.(USA TODAY Sports)

How Jepkosgei’s coaching dream began with nurturing young runners

The typical path for most middle-distance athletes involves progressing to longer distances on the track, sometimes leading to a transition into marathons.

Jepkosgei, too, considered making a comeback as a 1500m or even a 5000m runner. However, she never quite returned to elite competition after suffering a leg injury.

Instead, she chose to fully engage in managing a training camp she had established while still an active athlete. The uncertainty and the void of not having specific race goals significantly subsided.

The 800m star wholeheartedly embraced her new role as a mentor and coach for over 80 juniors from primary and high schools who frequented the training camp. She had established the camp to provide young runners with a nurturing and enjoyable environment during school holidays.

It felt like her career had come full circle.

“When I started my career, it was with Brother Colm [O’Connell], in high school. I was doing hurdles, which was then fun for me,” she said of her early days on track under the Irish missionary who has nurtured tens of Kenyan runners, including world 800m record holder David Rudisha.

“I always felt like what he did to my life from hurdling to being a 800m star was amazing. And I also always wanted to start with an athlete from zero. By identifying a talent and giving an opportunity to young people to experience the sport.”

Her decision to venture into the less explored path of becoming a female track coach was not an easy one. However, given that it had been a long-standing ambition, the double Olympian chose to begin with a straightforward approach: talent identification.

“Normally I have a camp of 86 or even 90 youngsters, but not all of them will be athletes. It was easy to work with them as they have a lot of questions, they are curious and enjoy being around each other and exploring running. It was mainly just teaching them that this is an opportunity to discover themselves.”Janeth Jepkosgei training young athletes at her training camp in Kabirirsang, Kenya.

Janeth Jepkosgei training young athletes at her training camp Kabirirsang, Kenya.(Courtesy)

There were moments of doubt around her. However, Jepkosgei, who’d risen from winning the inaugural 800m World U20 gold medal while still in high school, to becoming Kenya’s first woman to win a senior world championship title, never lacked confidence in herself and abilities.

“I never got discouraged or felt shy, knowing that in Kenya we have more men as coaches and very few or no women coaches,” she recalls of the early days as a junior track coach.

“In 2015, when I focussed on my junior athlete’s development programme, I transitioned from track into coaching immediately. So I never felt lonely or bad about ending my track career.

“And as a coach, I always felt respected and I have been lucky to have the support of my former coaches, Paul Ereng, Claudio Berardelli and even from the national team David Letting. They were and are always happy to help me with coaching tips and advice.”

Growing up surrounded by track champions

Prior to her coaching endeavors, Jepkosgei, fondly nicknamed the ‘Eldoret Express’ after Kenya’s public city-to-city buses, was renowned as one of Kenya’s greatest 800m runners. Athletics ran in her blood, with her father, Michael Busienei, also excelling in the 800m.

However, her drive to excel in running extended far beyond the boundaries of her own home.

Her hometown of Kapsabet boasts a rich legacy of athletic talent, with numerous medals and accolades to its credit. It is the birthplace of former 800m world record holder Wilson Kipketer, a three-time world champion, as well as the record-setting athlete Henry Rono.

Wilfred Bungei, the 800m Olympic gold medallist from Beijing (where Jepkosgei earned her silver behind another star from Kapsabet Pamela Jelimo) alsohails from this athletically prolific town.

Jepkosgei’s crowning achievement came in 2007 when she secured the world title in a final that featured Maria Mutola, the double Olympic champ.

The words runner and coach are stil very used repeatedly to refer to the three-time world medallist.

Her last major race may have been at the 2015 World Championships, but the 39-year-old has not entirely stepped away from track. Last April, she competed in the 400m at a meeting in Nairobi.

“Going back on track and racing is alwas great. It’s so nice to be here [in Budapest] meeting some of the athletes we competed with together. What I really miss most though is that last walk out to the track before a final race, your final chance to test yourself after the last training…”

Jepkosgei: Mentoring future stars

In Budapest, Jepkosgei led the World Athletics Refugee Team. She began working with the displaced runners in Kakuma, one of the world’s largest refugee camps in Kenya, ahead of the 2021 World U20 Championships in Nairobi.

That moment turned out to be her coaching highlight as one of the runners from her training camp, Emmanuel Wanyonyi, clinched the 800m gold, adding on to the 400m silver won by training mates Sylvia Chelangat, and 5000m bronze medallist Levy Kibet.

Wanyonyi, now the reigning 800m Diamond League winner and widely regarded as the best Kenyan 800m runner, took silver behind Canada’s Marco Arop at the last Worlds.

“I was so happy when they made the team. The first time I met Wanyonyi he didn’t believe in himself…he told he was from a tribe that didn’t have the natural running talent,” she tells Olympics.com.

“For me when I see athletes like Wanyonyi transition from junior to senior athletes, it’s one of my happiest moments. I would really like to see more athletes change their lives, and their communities, by being very good in their events. Athletics changed my life, and I also like to help someone become good at it and more importantly change their life.”Emmanuel Wanyonyi  reacts after taking silver in the men's 800m final during day eight of the World Athletics Championships Budapest 2023 at National Athletics Centre on August 26, 2023 in Budapest, Hungary.

Emmanuel Wanyonyi  reacts after taking silver in the men’s 800m final during day eight of the World Athletics Championships Budapest 2023 at National Athletics Centre on August 26, 2023 in Budapest, Hungary.(2023 Getty Images)

She was also encouraged to meet many other female track and field coaches in Budapest and hopes that her new role can inspire more women in Kenya.

“Coaching is enjoyable and life changing. I think when you have more female coaches, the sport also changes positively. And we don’t all have to be [technical] coaches, there are so many spheres of coaching like mental, safeguarding.”

The latter helps in training officials in safeguarding athletes of all ages and sexes from harassment in sport.

“I see more women coming up, and it’s encouraging to see more federations enrolling the services of female coaches compared to my time when I was an athlete. There’s a big difference in how we female coaches handle athletes. When you have more female coaches, you also have people who safeguard athletes from abuse. Sometimes we assume the roles of mothers, and when a mother sits down with their kids, it is sometimes easier for them to speak out.”

Source : Olympics