Growing up in a rural, Kenyan farming village six hours north of the capital Nairobi, Josephat Kipruto Koima figured an education would give him a better life. Koima, the middle of seven children, focused on his studies and excelled in math and science. He dreamed of becoming a pilot, not of the running careers that have given fellow Kenyans riches and international celebrity. But aviation is not offered in Kenyan universities and the cost of acquiring a pilot’s license is prohibitive.
“For practical reasons, I just let it go,” said Koima. Then, he heard about the Kenya Scholar-Athlete Project (KenSAP) and thought “what if?”
At age 18, Koima had never run a day in his life, at least not anything more than running after the cows or sheep that strayed into neighbors’ farms, or chasing after a tiny soccer ball in boyhood pickup games, or barreling down the rutted 1½-mile dirt path when late for school after milking the cows and taking care of his younger siblings. Yet Koima realized he could improve his chances at being accepted to KenSAP if he excelled at the 1,500-meter tryout that is part of the program’s admissions process. If he earned a place with KenSAP, Koima knew he would likely win a free ride to an elite American college.
“I decided to do a 20-minute run daily for about two weeks prior to the interview day,” said Koima. “It wasn’t easy but this was an opportunity of a lifetime and I knew I literally had to ‘run for my life.’ ”
The first time Koima ran competitively, on a dirt track at 7,000 feet altitude, he hit 4:38 for 1,500 meters. Five months later, he improved to 4:17, a time competitive with top American high school runners.
KenSAP administrators include the 1,500 meters because they are deeply aware of the proud history of Kenyan distance running, a history that has produced 25 Olympic gold medals in distance track events and 29 Kenyan victories (20 in the men’s race and nine in the women’s race) in the Boston Marathon since Ibrahim Hussein broke the tape in 1988. The Boston Marathon numbers include a 10-year winning streak from 1991-2000 in the men’s race, the longest national streak in the event’s fabled history.
As Boston celebrates the 25th anniversary of its first Kenyan winner, KenSAP will pass its own milestone: helping over 100 Kenyan students gain entry and full need-based scholarships into elite American universities. Program graduates and Kenyan running champions share a pride in representing their country. They carry the full weight of the KenSAP legacy and Kenyan running tradition on their shoulders.
Last year, Koima graduated from Williams College as an All-America cross-country runner, using Kenya’s proud running tradition to help launch a career with the International Monetary Fund. While Kenyans may capture more Boston Marathon championships on Monday, the greater legacy of Kenyan running success may be found in college and universities across the Northeast. Today, KenSAP is a testament to how sport can change a country and build a better future for more than Kenyan distance runners.
Founded in 2004 by former Kenyan Olympic 800-meter bronze medalist Mike Boit and Kenyan running expert John Manners, KenSAP requires that potential students rank in the top 1 percent of all test takers for Kenya’s national high school leaving exam. Considerable weight is attached to the students’ family background, with strong preference given to those who have overcome adversity.
Stories like Elizabeth Jeruto’s, Wellesley Class of 2009, are not uncommon. The fourth of six children of an illiterate single mother, Jeruto missed school for weeks at a time because her family couldn’t pay school fees. And she was often unable to study at night because there was no money for kerosene for the family lamp. Amos Kipyegon Kitur, Harvard Class of 2009 and now a pharmacology Ph.D. candidate at Columbia, once worked on a small farm with his 13 siblings and his illiterate parents.
It is not by chance that Boit and Manners targeted the western counties of the Rift Valley north of Nairobi. Most of Kenya’s renowned international athletes hail from this 6,000-8,000 foot highland, Kalenjin country, snaking along the western ridge of the fertile valley.
“Our thinking was that if we recruit Kalenjin, at least some of them are going to be able to run even if they’ve never done it before,” said Manners.
Like Koima, at least 90 percent of the students come to KenSAP without formal running experience. And according to Manners, about one-quarter of the KenSAP’s students show enough athletic promise for him to pitch them to college coaches, and about half of those wind up as varsity athletes.
The KenSAP founders’ theory that these bright students may possess innate running talent has proved prescient. From Harvard to Princeton, from Williams to Lehigh, these young student athletes are breaking school records and taking NCAA running titles. Peter Kosgei won nine NCAA Division 3 running titles and 11 All-America awards while an undergraduate at Hamilton College and was the most successful runner in the history of their track program. Another talented runner, Evans Kosgei (no relation to Peter), who had never run before college and didn’t even own running shoes when he went out for track, went on to set school records for 5000 and 10,000 meters during his days at Lehigh and was twice voted Scholar-Athlete of the year.
KenSAP fully funds the nine-week training sessions in which students prepare for the SAT and TOEFL exams, run, and receive assistance with the American college application process. The sessions are at Lornah Kiplagat’s High Altitude Training Center in Iten. With four world records, Lornah Kiplagat is a national hero and member of the KenSAP Board of Advisors.
“Kenyan education doesn’t reward you if you are a runner,” said Nephat Maritim, a Harvard sophomore majoring in Computer Science and African Studies. “It’s either you are a runner or you’re an academic. I left high school a little disappointed. This part of me that had been awakened through running was going to die . . . but as soon as I saw the KenSAP website I thought, this is definitely the thing I really want to do.”
Now, the soft-spoken Maritim competes for the Crimson in the 400 and 800 meters. “Neph [Maritim] is so passionate about this, his heart is so clearly into this sport, into this team, that’s why he’s been such a fantastic addition for us,” said Harvard track and field coach Jason Saretsky. But there is much more to the program than striding around college tracks. Emmanuela Kiplagat, a junior at Tufts, hails from the remote village of Kaptagat in the Northern Rift Valley. For her, KenSAP offers an outlet besides running. “[Being a female in rural Kenya], girls are expected to get married after high school,” said Kiplagat. “I lived comfortably within the societal expectations until I got accepted into KenSAP, which unexpectedly opened up my view of the world.”
After Tufts, she plans to earn her MBA and return home, where she hopes to help low-income individuals with small-scale businesses.
Maritim emphasized the importance of foreign-educated Kenyans bringing their ideas and capital back home, to build industries, establish schools and “teach in a way that will change the perspective of the students.”
“There are studies about how Kenya has impacted running around the world,” said Maritim. “But there needs to be a study on how running has impacted Kenya.”
In many ways, the Kenyans who run to victory down Boylston Street are starting, not finishing, something big.