By Chris Lotsbom
(c) 2010 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

Liberty's Sam Chelanga has always lived in the shadows of others.  From the time he was living in Nairobi, the 168 cm (5'-6"), 57 kg (125 lb) Chelanga had never been one to steal the show.  That is, until this year.

At first, Chelanga was overshadowed by his brother, Joshua, a 2:07 marathoner.  Growing up in Nairobi, his brother, who is twelve years older, urged him to begin running, saying it would help straighten his life.  Running could give him a direction, as he saw that Sam could have the potential to earn a scholarship or money for the family.  That's when the journey began in April of 2004, the time Chelanga first began to run competitively.

"I didn't have a coach, [I] just trained with my brother's group," said the 25 year-old through a Facebook message last week. "I would say I got tips from many guys on the team but Paul Tergat and my brother inspired me the most."

With help from friends and former marathon world record holder Tergat, who was Joshua's training partner, Chelanga ended up at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.

Once he arrived in the United States, Chelanga had to transition into a new life.  Moving to a new country while living a college life filled with academic and athletic demands posed a challenge to the diminutive athlete.

"Well it was tough the first time I got here, but once I got used to the culture and NCAA student athlete life- I can manage now," said the junior majoring in Government.

After transferring from Fairleigh Dickinson to Liberty in 2007, Chelanga began a new journey, one in which he was initially overshadowed by teammate Josh McDougal.  While redshirting his first year at Liberty, Chelanga trained with McDougal and ultimately watched him win the NCAA Cross Country title on his fourth try.  Chelanga surely was motivated to achieve the same success as his teammate and friend.

But it would have to wait.  For the 2008/2009 season, when Chelanga was a redshirt sophomore, it was the University of Oregon's Galen Rupp who edged him in all three seasons: cross country, indoor and outdoor track. After being beaten in a final sprint at the NCAA Cross Country Championships, Chelanga again had to settle for a runner-up position at the NCAA Indoor Championships behind Rupp. He followed that with a third place finish at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in the 10,000m.

It was in that year, however, when Chelanga broke through, running 27:28.48 at the Brutus Hamilton Invitational, a time which ranked #18 in the world for the 10,000m in 2009.  The time, then a collegiate record, was just a shade of what was to come in the future.  While the nation was praising Rupp and talking about how he was the next great legend to come out of Oregon, Chelanga was still somewhat under the radar.  People knew he was good, they just weren't talking about him.

This impressive statistic summed up Chelanga's senior year: in 18 cross country and track races, Chelanga only lost to two collegiate runners: Rupp, and Arkansas's Shawn Forrest.  That's how good he had become.

Not only was Chelanga blossoming on the track, he was achieving in the classroom as well; he earned the Big South Howard Bagwell Male Student-Athlete of the Year award, recognizing him for his strength both with, and without, his racing spikes on.

As the 2009-2010 school year began, it finally looked as if Chelanga could achieve the fame which he had waited for and deserved.  Entering last November's NCAA Cross Country Championships, Chelanga was the top returner, but many were talking of how Stanford's Chris Derrick or Northern Arizona's David McNeill would pose a large threat to him.  Then again, he had lost at the Pre-Nationals cross country meet earlier in the season.  However, Chelanga put any talk of an upset to rest as soon as the gun fired, taking the lead and never looking back, ultimately beating the rest of the field by a whopping 25 seconds while setting a course record of 28:41.3.

Chelanga had earned his national title, one which he had traveled thousands of miles and across oceans to grasp.  Motivated by his late mother, Ann, and friend Tergat, Chelanga had done what he once never thought was possible: achieve success in America.

But after the cross country season was over, and the focus shifted to the indoor and outdoor ovals, Chelanga again had to face the challenge of rising above the rest to ensure success.  Defeated in the 5000m at Indoor nationals by McNeill, Chelanga came outdoors wanting to prove something big.  That he did at the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational.  Smashing his own collegiate record by twenty seconds despite being hampered by an injury on the top of his foot, Chelanga ran 27:08.39, placing third in a field filled with top professional runners.  He even beat Rupp, who was ever-elusive while still in college.  But again, the limelight was on someone else- this time it was Chris Solinsky, who had set a new American Record.  Even after running a spectacular race, breaking an NCAA record, and beating most of a star studded field, Chelanga had to settle for second fiddle behind Solinsky.

But not having the spotlight doesn't get to Sam Chelanga.

"No it doesn't bother me," he explained.  "Actually, I never really thought about that."

One thing is for sure- Sam Chelanga is here to run fast, and succeed.  Whether it's him all alone ahead of the pack, or mixing it up with the rest of the competition, Chelanga wants to win.  That's that matters.

"I'm just focusing on racing," he said.  "The times will just come."

With the NCAA Outdoor Championships opening one week from today, Chelanga is poised to earn that second, and possibly third, national title.  Winning both the 5000m and 10,000m at regionals, he is ready to toe the line in Eugene with the best the NCAA has to offer.  This time, he might have the spotlight all to himself.




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