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Emmanuel Wanyonyi: Of David Rudisha’s Dreams, Arop Rivalry, Noah Lyles Affection and 800m Plans
- Emmanuel Wanyonyi is the world men’s 800m silver medalist and Diamond League champion
- Sports Brief engaged him on his budding career, achievements, inspiration, and other topics
- This exclusive interview also features comments from one of Wanyonyi's coaches, Hillary Lelei
That Emmanuel Wanyonyi is the world’s brightest prospect in men’s 800m is no longer in question.
Or how else do you explain a person who is barely 20 years old having already claimed a silver medal at an event as grand as the World Athletics Championships?
Sports Brief met up with Wanyonyi in Namgoi - a sleepy town in the Great Rift Valley located approximately 310 kilometres northwest of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi – for an exclusive sit-down with this teenager who oozes so much potential.
Clad in a green pullover, blue trousers, and running shoes, a jolly Wanyonyi ushers us into what he later confirms to be a camp under the 2 Running Club owned by his coach, Claudio Berardelli.
Wanyonyi’s first shot into the limelight was when he brought the roof down with an energetic performance at the 2021 U20 World Athletics Championships at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi. He clocked a time of 1:43.76 – a championship record – to win gold at the event.
Inside Wanyonyi’s childhood
But where did it all begin?
Born on August 1, 2004, Wanyonyi was born into a family of 11 children – six boys and five girls, in Saboti, Trans Nzoia county, the western part of Kenya. He is the fourth-born male child and tragically lost his father at a tender age.
He explains to us that hardships, especially with school fees, made him drop out of school in class three (grade three) in 2012.
“I was sent back home to bring 30 Kenyan shillings (0.20 US Dollars) for exam fees. My mother did not have that money, and I decided to leave school altogether and venture into cow grazing.”
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He got a second chance at education in 2017 when Kapretwa Primary School took him in under an athletics sponsorship. By this time, he had naturally developed an interest in athletics but never realised it was a talent that would change a lot of things in his life.
Wanyonyi specialised in 1500m and the 3000m steeplechase, where he reached the primary school games' national finals. His performances landed him another scholarship at Kosirai Secondary School for his high school education.
He trained with world beaters like 2016 steeplechase Olympic champion Conseslus Kipruto. Wanyonyi admits to us that the competition he got at Kosirai made him drop down to 800m. He refocused his energies to the two-lap race and vowed to make it to Kenya’s team for the U20 championships.
“I realised that I could run the 800m well, and once I arrived in Nairobi, I wanted to win the race. After posting a sub 1:44, I decided to graduate to seniors immediately since my time was fast.”
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In the course of this, he met 2007 women’s 800m world champion Janeth Jepkosgei, who introduced him to Berardelli. Jepkosgei took him under her wings, becoming his assistant coach. The retired athlete has been spotted on numerous occasions on the sidelines of Wanyonyi’s races.
2 Running Club
Earlier on the day of the interview, he felt unwell and, on the advice of his coach, decided to seek treatment. Our chat is disrupted by the arrival of Hillary Lelei – one of the assistant coaches at 2 Running Club – who is here to take him to the hospital. The hospital is in Eldoret town, slightly 45 kilometres away (a 40-minute drive) from where we are.
Lelei explains to us that Wanyonyi is one of the most disciplined athletes he has ever met, arguing that if every Kenyan athlete had his mentality, the country would be scooping every medal at global championships.
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“All he does is wake up, train, eat well and wait for races.”
The 2 Running Club under Berardelli – an Italian national – also trains two-time Boston Marathon champion, Evans Chebet and 2022 London marathon winner, Amos Kipruto, among others.
The agency is responsible for training and managing athletes. Their roles circulate around facilitating the athlete's travel and well-being when it is not a global championship where the government steps in.
Lelei then lets us in on Wanyonyi’s favourite meal, where he hilariously quips that he should never be given rice.
“Usijaribu kupatia Wanyonyi mchele (Never, ever give him rice). He is totally comfortable with taking ugali for lunch and supper. That's where he gets his energy from”
Ugali is a Kenyan dish made from maize meal.
Training routine and plans to eclipse David Rudisha
As we turn into the main Eldoret-Kapsabet highway, Wanyonyi walks us through his rigorous training routine, which includes a 20 to 25-kilometre run on alternate days. This is switched with fieldwork to work on speed, given that 800m is a combination of endurance and a little bit of sprinting towards the tail end.
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Lelei is confident that a day will come when the 19-year-old could easily transition to longer disciplines like the marathon, given his training routine and fortitude. Wanyonyi agrees, but he has a different fish to fry first.
“In one of my first interviews, I said that I would break the world record. I want to use my talent to show people that it is possible. If David Rudisha did it, I can also do it. I just have to believe in my potential.”
Rudisha set the 800m world record at the London Olympic Games in 2012. His time of 1:40.91 remains unscathed to date. Wanyonyi's personal best is 1:42.80, as captured by official figures from World Athletics.
Emmanuel Wanyonyi vs Marco Arop
When it comes to tactics, Wanyonyi discusses his plans with his coaches before the race, where they share notes and agree. However, things never go according to plan, like the 2023 World Championships in Budapest.
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“We had agreed to let Marco Arop dominate the race going into the second lap. Then, with the last 200m or 100m, I will pass him and be the world champion.”
There was a precedence in this as Arop had the tendency of dominating races from start to finish, only that this time, in the sweltering heat of the Hungarian capital, the Canadian came up with a different strategy.
“Arop decided to hang back and was in the last position as we crossed the first 400m. This threw me off my game as I had expected him to set the pace. I kept waiting for him to surge forward but he didn’t come until the latter stages.”
The 25-year-old beat Wanyonyi to the gold medal, with the former U20 champion forced to settle for silver with a time of 1:44.53, just a few microseconds from the winning time.
The Kenyan would, however, exact revenge a few days later at the Xiamen Diamond League in China before beating him again in the Diamond League final in Oregon. It is a rivalry that promises to offer so much in years to come.
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The learning curve
Wanyonyi’s first major senior championship was when he missed a podium finish, finishing fourth at the 2022 World Championships in Oregon. He tells us that the race, which was won by compatriot Emmanuel Korir, taught him what it takes to win on such a big stage.
“It was my first time out there with no experience at all. It dawned on me that everyone competing at the championships is not a pushover and you have to put your best foot forward every time. Everyone wants to win.”
His success has seen him receive invitations to multiple lucrative Diamond League events. He already has over seven invitations for next year, but he will sit down with his coach and decide which races he will take up.
With the different destinations come the culture shocks. He discloses that he was awesomely shocked when he went to the Monaco Diamond League and noticed that the stadium was built on top of a car park.
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Wanyonyi’s Paris Olympics 2024 plans
After a successful 2023 season, Wanyonyi is now looking ahead to next year when athletes troop to Paris, France, for the 2024 Olympic games.
He remains coy on his ambitions for the games, insisting that his aim is to make the Kenyan team first.
“Kenyan trials are hard like the Olympic games itself. The first target is to make the team, then afterwards, I can think about the colour of the medal I want to bring home.”
Wanyonyi: Why I love Noah Lyles
The 2023 Diamond League champion confesses his love and admiration for American sprinter Noah Lyles and Jamaican Shericka Jackson.
“Lyles is someone who can defeat you merely by talking alone. He is always psyched up and full of confidence, while Jackson never accepts to lose.”
Lyles won three gold medals in Budapest, while Jackson retained her 200m title and won silver medals in the 100m and 4 by 100m relay.
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Athletics Kenya woes
Lelei opens up on a disconnect he feels is hurting Kenyan athletes. The coach wants the local federation, Athletics Kenya(AK), to allow athletes to remain in their respective camps ahead of international events rather than putting them together in a camp in Nairobi.
"When you do that, you take a player from high altitude to low altitude. You change his diet, his routine and the specific aspects he was working on with his coach. I'd prefer if athletes were left to their usual routines until the day they fly out."
Pastor Wanyonyi: Faith and pressure
The chat takes a warm spiritual detour when Wanyonyi takes us through how important his faith is to him not only in his career but also in life.
“I always pray to God to give me the energy and good health. Without these two, even if I train hard, I can't succeed.”
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Pastor Wanyonyi, as his coach Lelei calls him, takes this cue to remind us that the good scripture, although not verbatim, tells us that God helps those who help themselves.
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One of the delicate issues he has had to balance with the two years he has been in the headlines is how to handle fame, success and remaining true to his character at such a young age.
“My success has not changed me. I was raised in a humble home and I have no desire to put myself above my peers or those around me. I want to remain normal.”
Family and generous acts
Wanyonyi has built his mother a house in Kitale as he supports his other siblings through school. He admits that he may have a lot of reasons why he keeps putting in the work daily, but none is greater than his family.
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“I work hard for them. I want to put them in a better place than what we have grown up with.”
Still, on houses, Wanyonyi’s benevolence hasn’t ended with his family. He has since built a new house that will accommodate the 2 Running Club athletes. The house is almost ready to be occupied before the end of the year.
“I wanted us to have a place we call home. A place where the management doesn’t have to worry about who will meet the rent costs. A place where all we will concentrate on is running and having a family away from our biological families.”
Lelei is lost for words. He only asks Wanyonyi to maintain the same trajectory in his career as the best is yet to come.
Wanyonyi's advice to other athletes
As we pull into Eldoret town, Wanyonyi sends out a word of advice to the upcoming athletes, reiterating that there are no shortcuts in life.
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“Believe in yourself. There is a time for everything. If you have the talent and you keep working hard to complement it, then it is only a matter of time before you get your breakthrough.”
Wanyonyi is also alive to the fact that he can’t run forever and reveals the idea of one day retreating to a quiet life at home, away from all the fanfare, to practice farming.
As we part ways in Eldoret after the hospital check-ups, we are convinced more than ever that this man, with the huge and quick steps on the track complemented by the courage and open-mindedness he approaches life with, is destined for greatness.
At only 19 years of age and with all the support of Lelei and co around him, the only way is up.