Godfather of Kenyan running teaching life lessons during pandemic

Young athletes in Kenya run during a recent training session in a field in the town of Iten. Irish Patrician Brother Colm O’Connell has been turning youths like these into Olympic and world champions. CNS photo/Fredrick Nzwili

NAIROBI, Kenya (CNS) — In the Kenyan town of Iten, more than 7,800 feet above sea level, Irish Patrician Brother Colm O’Connell is working to motivate athletes overwhelmed by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brother O’Connell, 72, a native of Mallow, Ireland, has turned many young runners into Olympic and world champions. The godfather of Kenyan running, as he is known, must now convince athletes that some aspects of their lives are outside their control.

“Many of the athletes are anxious and concerned about the (pandemic) situation. They didn’t expect it would continue for this long. Like everyone, they thought it would be over within a short time,” Brother O’Connell told Catholic News Service Aug. 21 in a telephone interview. “I am telling them to see the other side of things and learn something positive about their lives during the COVID-19 period — how they better their lives — their health and wellness.”

Iten, in the western Rift Valley, is known as the “Home of Champions” and, before March, foreign athletes had begun training there in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. Hundreds of Kenyan runners, some Brother O’Connell proteges, were also on the training track, but the government suddenly ordered the closure of the camps to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

The ministry of education also shut all schools, a move that meant the suspension of the schools’ athletic competitions. Each year, the competition injects young runners into Kenya’s athletic scene, but this will be missed this year.

“A generation of athletes has been lost, and it will take a long time for things to come back to normal,” said Brother O’Connell.

Brother O’Connell arrived in Kenya on a missionary trip in 1976 and began teaching geography at the St. Patrick’s Boys High School in Iten. He taught there for 17 years, seven of which he was the headmaster. In the late 1970s, without prior knowledge of coaching or experience in athletics, he started training the boys as a way of getting to know them better. He still lives in a small house in the school compound.

In late July, the government relaxed social distancing measures, allowing some local athletes to resume training. Unlike normal times — when barefoot children, women and men would be running in Iten — the fear of COVID-19 has significantly reduced the numbers. Those who turn up have to follow COVID-19 protocols such as social distancing and wearing masks.

“It’s now when some are starting to train in small groups,” said Brother O’Connell. He said Elgeyo-Marakwet County, where Iten is located, has the lowest cases of COVID-19 in Kenya, but that did not mean the county is safe.

“I keep a keen an eye on the situation and demand that the social distancing measures are strictly followed,” said the brother, who now is working with three athletes instead of the usual 10.

He said the training is not rigorous since there are no major competitions on sight; the Olympics have been postponed to 2021. The who are running are doing so for their health and fitness.

Brother O’Connell explained that for successful careers, athletes should exercise patience, learn from failures and disappointments and be willing make sacrifices.

At the same time, he said he sees faith as central to the athletes’ running careers. Faith enables and empowers the athletes to see their talent as a part of overall lifestyle, and that failure is part of life and can keep them grounded, he said.