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Sylvia Kibet: Kenya's Forgotten Lady
by: Paul Norton
July 22, 2009

Editor's Note: With the success of our Ethiopian correspondent we are pleased to now have a Kenyan correspondent for the summer.

Paul Norton will be a junior at Brandeis University and is a two time NCAA DIII qualifier. He is spending the summer working for the KIMbia foundation connecting students in Kenya with their sponsors through letter writing, profiles of the students, and more. He also is finishing the track project at famed Singore High School (the top girl's track high school in Kenya). He has gotten to know Sylvia Kibet while in Kenya and felt this unheralded Kenyan star deserved to be brought to light. Sylvia is not represented by the KIMbia Agency.

Rounding the final turn of the 5,000m at the 2009 Bislett games in Oslo were the usual suspects: Meseret Defar, Vivian Cheruiyot, and Meselech Melkamu. But right behind them, just tenths of a second behind Melkamu, was Sylvia Kibet, on her way to a 20 second personal best of 14:37.77. Although this was her first sub-14:40 clocking, the performance should hardly be a surprise to anybody who has followed Kibet the last few years. She placed 4th in the 5,000m in 2007 at the IAAF World Championships in Osaka, and then 4th again in the 5,000m at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Her finish in Beijing was especially impressive given that all of the women in front of her (Tirunesh Dibaba, Elvan Abeylegesse and Meseret Defar) have held the world record at one point.

Despite these strong performances, Sylvia's name is not nearly as well known among athletics fans as Ethiopians Meseret Defar and Tirunesh Dibaba. She is often even in the shadow of her own countrywomen Vivian Cheruiyot and Linet Masai. Even her older sister, Hilda Kibet, who was European Cross Country champion last December (she now runs for the Netherlands), is better known among athletics fans worldwide despite being, in her own words, "the slow one" of the family.

You would think that in Kenya Sylvia would get more recognition. After all, she does hold national records for the indoor 1500m (4:07.46) and the indoor 3000m (8:41.82). However, that is not the case. In a recent Daily Standard article about Kenyan female athletes, Sylvia was listed as one of the athletes whose performance had declined in recent years, and she was mistaken for a 1500m runner. "I don't like it," Kibet said of the lack of recognition, "but I'll do my best Saturday and they'll see."

The friendly but soft-spoken Kibet prefers to do most of the talking with her legs. She did just that in 2007 in Osaka. Many doubted that Kibet, with her relatively modest personal best of 15:07, could be competitive on the world level and were skeptical when she was selected for the team. Some even wondered if she would make the final. However, she silenced all of her doubters by finishing fourth and running a personal best (14:59) in a relatively tactical race.


Sylvia Kibet in 3rd at Last Year's Olympic Trials

Anybody who thought the finish was a fluke was again disproven, as Sylvia continued to shine. A few weeks after the World Championships in 2007, she competed in a two-mile race and ran 9:12 to place second behind a world record performance by Meseret Defar. Over the next year she became a regular frontrunner in championship races. Kibet's route to success is traditional in some ways and unconventional in others.

Sylvia: "You come from the bush, or you come from the forest. Then you train, and you become a champion,"
The way Sylvia sees it, becoming a great Kenyan runner is simple. "You come from the bush, or you come from the forest. Then you train, and you become a champion," she quipped. Sylvia fits this model well, as she grew up in the rural village of Kapchorwa, nearly two hours from Eldoret, the closest city. She demonstrated talent at a very young age, earning a silver medal over 1500m at the World Youth Championships in 1998. After that, she and 2007 World 800m champion Janeth Jepkosgei starred for athletics powerhouse Singore girls secondary school.

After graduating from Singore in 2002, however, things didn't quite go as planned. "My friends and I, we had too much fun. I could not focus," Sylvia explains. The lack of focus led to a few years of sub-par performances, but then a stroke of luck in the form of a baby girl turned things around.

In January of 2005, Sylvia gave birth to her daughter Britney. Joking around with friends was no longer an option and all of her time was spent taking care of Britney or training with her husband Erastus. Although she was racing relatively well after coming back from maternity leave, she initially lacked the speed or fitness to be competitive on the track. As a result, she raced mostly on the roads, going up as far as the half marathon. In 2006, legendary Italian coach Renato Canova saw her competing in a half marathon, and approached her after the race. Canova felt that she had untapped potential in the shorter distances, and after Sylvia got back in shape they focused on speed. "I did a lot of 300s, 400s, speed, speed, speed" Sylvia said. The speed work paid off. Not only has Sylvia been able to set national records in the shorter distance races, but she has fared extremely well in tactical championship races over 5000m because of her ability to cover the last lap in 60 seconds or under. In Beijing, she covered the last two laps in 2:05.

While speed had been her focus the past two years, Sylvia credits her improved performances this year to a newfound focus on strength. During the winter, shorter interval workouts were replaced with tempo runs as long as 15km. Instead of competing on the indoor circuit, she chose to run the Kenyan cross-country trials, where she finished eighth. She then kicked off her outdoor season with a 30:47 10000m, a personal best by over a minute.

While her strength has increased, Sylvia's speed has not declined in the slightest. A week before the Bislett games, she ran a 4:08 1500m in Nairobi (at about 5,000 feet above sea level) to sharpen up. During a recent speed session of 600m intervals at Kamariny stadium in Iten (8000 feet above seal level) her last 600 was run in 1:35. Sylvia hopes that her new found combination of strength and speed will be the difference between getting on the podium and just missing it as she has the last two years. While Sylvia won't make any bold predictions about a finish in Berlin, she'll do the talking with her legs.

            

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