Paul Chelimo never won an NCAA title, was .06 away from missing out the U.S. team this year and entered the Olympics with a 13:21 pb. Now he’s the first American 5,000 medallist since 1964.
By Jonathan Gault
August 20, 2016
RIO DE JANEIRO — It’s been a wild, wild ride for the Paul Chelimo in 2016. The 25-year-old UNC-Greensboro alum’s series of breakthroughs started with his surprising runner-up finish in a stacked 3,000 at USA Indoors in the second week of March and reached its culmination with his historic medal in Rio tonight, the first by an American in the Olympic 5,000 since Bob Schul and Bill Dellinger earned gold and bronze in Tokyo in 1964. In between, he took a sleeping pill that left him drowsy for the first round of the 5,000 at the U.S. Trials, made the Olympic team by .06 of a second over Eric Jenkins and won silver tonight, only to have it taken away and given back within the span of two hours.
Chelimo was initially disqualified for a lane infringement (stepping inside the curb) under IAAF Rule 163.3(b). He crossed the line second and left the track believing he was the silver medallist. He didn’t learn that he had been disqualified until he was doing a live TV interview on NBC. Chelimo said he had about two to three minutes with the NBC crew before the interview and said he would have preferred they told him about the DQ then rather than on air.
“They should have told me [before] and told me what was happening,” Chelimo said. “I can’t say for them, I don’t know what happened [and whether they knew before the interview started] but I was just disappointed. It’s really sad for me because I heard it from a TV guy, a TV interview…I thought it was a joke. I thought he was joking.”
Initially, Chelimo was both devastated and confused.
“That was the most heartbreaking thing in my life. It’s really something I couldn’t even wrap it up in my mind. Going back in history, I’ve never seen a 5k where [people were getting DQ’d [like that].”
However after about an hour of uncertainty, Chelimo’s DQ was overturned (Ethiopian Muktar Edris and Canadian Mo Ahmed, who initially finished 4-5, were also DQ’d; Ahmed was reinstated, Edris was not), and when he found out, Chelimo described it as the “best, best feeling ever.”
Chelimo said that his workouts have been “really, really good” recently (he said after the race he thinks he can run 12:45) and that after a pb in the semi (going from 13:21.61 to 13:19.54) and a good warmup tonight, he started to think a medal was possible.
“After the last lap [in the prelims], I wasn’t spent,” Chelimo said. “I was not spent and I ran a personal best, 13:19 and that gave me a lot of confidence. When I was warming up [tonight], I realized there was something special in me. I was feeling really great. That’s the best I’ve ever felt in a warmup.”
Chelimo said he learned from the Trials that he had to be smarter about when he moved in tonight’s race. At the Trials, he went really hard with 200 to go but ran out of gas and almost wound up getting passed by Jenkins for the final Olympic spot. Tonight, he rode the rail most of the way until he had to start positioning himself for the kick on the final lap. Defending that spot was a battle from start to finish. Luckily, the water treatment specialist in the U.S. Army, who trains with the Army’s World-Class Athlete Program in Beaverton, Ore., was ready for the fight.
“People were pushing back and forth, there was people from behind, pushing and shoving and people passing on my outside,” Chelimo said. “It wasn’t an easy race that you could sit there and expect to medal without fighting.”
He timed his kick much better tonight than he did in Eugene a month ago and didn’t reach top gear until the top of the homestretch, at which point it looked like he might actually challenge Mo Farah for the win. The Brit was too good tonight, but Chelimo still closed amazingly well, covering his final 400 meters in 53.1 to run a 16-second pb of 13:03.90, just .60 back of Farah.
When Chelimo wrapped up his NCAA career at UNC-Greensboro in 2013 (he began his collegiate career at NAIA Shorter University in Georgia), few would have predicted him as a medallist at the next Olympic Games. Though he ran 13:21 in college, he never won an NCAA championship. His best finish in cross country was 10th in 2012, and he was twice second in the 5,000 meters outdoors, to Southern Utah’s Cam Levins in 2012 and Arizona’s Lawi Lalang in 2013.
I’ve underestimated Chelimo all year, and time and again he has proven me wrong. I didn’t think he’d make the World Indoor team. I thought he had a shot at the team in the 5k at the Trials but didn’t pick him in our preview. And of course, I didn’t expect him to medal tonight. Be honest: how many of you thought Chelimo had a chance to wind up on the podium in Rio?
Chelimo was more than happy to poke a little fun at my poor predictions after his run tonight.
“LetsRun, you guys don’t believe in me,” Chelimo said. “Now today you believe in me. They never counted me in the medal standings.”
Then Chelimo looked down at the silver piece of metal draped around his neck.
“But now what is this? Medal.”
Congratulations Paul, for proving me wrong once again.