By Jonathan Gault
August 19, 2016
RIO DE JANEIRO — For half her life, Vivian Cheruiyot has been chasing Ethiopians at the Olympic Games. On Friday night in Rio, she finally caught one.
After collecting two silvers and a bronze in five previous Olympic finals, Cheruiyot took on Almaz Ayana, the slight, slender running machine whom no one has been able to hang with for the past year, and actually beat her in a footrace. In the process, she sprung a massive upset, set the Olympic record of 14:26.17 and earned the first Olympic gold medal for Kenya in the women’s 5,000 meters.
Cheruiyot’s was a victory for all Kenyans, but first and foremost, it was a victory for her. Cheruiyot is unquestionably one of the greatest runners of her generation, piling up four World Championship golds, but she seemed destined to be denied that coveted Olympic title by a trio of transcendent Ethiopians. First it was Tirunesh Dibaba, in the 5,000 in Beijing and the 10,000 in London. Then it was Meseret Defar in the 5,000 four years ago. And just last week, it was Almaz Ayana, the newly-minted world record holder, who didn’t just beat Cheruiyot but destroyed her over 10,000 meters at Rio’s Olympic Stadium by setting a world record. That victory, which came by a colossal 15 seconds, looked to mark the beginning of Ayana’s Olympic dominance at the same time as it extinguished any of Cheruiyot’s hopes for a long-awaited title. Instead, Cheruiyot got her storybook ending, going out as a champion at last in what was almost certainly her final Olympic track race.
Cheruiyot has been chasing this dream since she was a teenager. She made her Olympic debut at Sydney 2000 two weeks after her 17th birthday. Her manager, Ricky Simms, said her talent predates even that.
“Vivian is a supernatural talent. I think she made the Kenyan team when she was 13. The senior team. And they wouldn’t take her to championships.”
After taking 14th in Sydney and 5th in Beijing 2008, both in the 5,000, Cheruiyot won her first world title over the same distance in Berlin in 2009. Two years later in Daegu, she swept the 5,000 and 10,000 titles and entered the 2012 Olympics with a great shot at the gold in both events. But she was only third in the 10,000 behind Dibaba and fellow Kenyan Sally Kipyego, and the result crushed Cheruiyot’s psyche.
“[After the 10,000 in London], she was broken a little bit mentally,” said Simms, who also oversees her training from afar. “She should have won the 5k in ’12 in my opinion, but mentally she got broken and she got the flu that week as well [and had to settle for the silver].”
Cheruiyot was devastated after London. She ran one race in 2013, a cross country event in Edinburgh in January, before taking a two-year break from racing, during which time she gave birth to a son, Allan, in October 2013. She returned last year and earned her fourth world title, claiming the 10,000 in Beijing, but she did not face any of the Ethiopian titans in that race.
Cheruiyot came to Rio in the shape of her life. In last Friday’s 10,000, she ran within a second of a record set by a woman, Wang Junxia, everyone agrees was doping. Cheruiyot’s time of 29:32.53 was over 20 seconds faster than anyone outside of Junxia had ever run for 10,000 meters. Yet she wound up losing to Ayana, barely able to stay on the same straightaway by the end of the race.
“She thought the Olympics was a little bit of a curse for her,” Simms said, adding that she was sick in both 2008 and 2012 during the Games. “Then when we saw Ayana was running the 10k, it’s like, ‘Ugh, that’s not what we wanted to hear,’ because she was at a different level than the girls this year.”
After the 10,000 defeat, Simms and Cheruiyot’s support group tried to rebuild her confidence by focusing on the positives of her effort in the 10,000 and how the 5,000 could be different.
“People are coming up to me who know saying, ‘Hey, you know she got nothing, no credit for what she did [in the 10,000].'” Simms said. “That was a huge performance…We went through the things that could be different today to the other day. Someone could be carrying an injury, someone could be ill, someone could be very fatigued, someone could be fighting with her boyfriend. We went through all the things that could affect her today. Now we said it’s a longshot, but we have to try.”
With that in mind, Simms met with Cheruiyot and her Kenyan teammate Hellen Obiri (also coached/managed by Simms) in the warmup area before the race and devised a plan to slay the Ethiopian dragon. Simms noticed that Ayana liked to run with the pack for the first two kilometers or so before making a hard move to separate from the field. That’s exactly what Ayana did in her semifinal on Tuesday, splitting a 66.6 from 1900 to 2300 to break the race wide open.
“If the girls went with [Ayana], she’s going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing. She’s going to put them a little bit under,” Simms said. “So we said, okay: 68’s is 8:30 pace. So I know the girls can run 8:24/8:25. I said, ‘You keep running 67’s/68’s and then with five laps to go, you have to go together. One of you go and then the other one go to work her back.'”
Side-by-side splits of the final two miles
|1800 to 2200||65.1||67.2|
|2200 to 2600||66.7||68.2|
|2600 to 3000||68.0||67.3|
|3000 to 3400||68.0||69.6|
|3400 to 3800||69.1||69.3|
|3800 to 4200||69.7||66.3|
|4200 to 4600||70.4||64.5 (goes by)|
|4600 to 5000||68.6||65.5|
Sure enough, Ayana ran with the pack until 1700 meters in Friday night’s 5,000 final before dropping a 64.8 to give herself a two-second lead. As instructed, Cheruiyot and Obiri hung back, working together with the third Kenyan, Mercy Cherono, to make sure the deficit never grew too large. It grew to five seconds by 3600m, but Obiri kept grinding and was able to cut it to four a lap later.
“Once we saw we were getting her back, I said the crowd will roar, people will see that it’s getting closer, [Ayana] could perhaps crack,” Simms said.
It happened very quickly. After taking over from Obiri with a kilometer to go, Cheruiyot got the deficit down to 1.6 seconds with two laps to go, and at that point it became clear that she was going to catch Ayana. She did just that on the penultimate lap, blowing by with 700 to go and dropping Obiri in the process. She ran that lap in 64.5 seconds to Ayana’s 70.4.
“I was seeing she was not moving well,” Cheruiyot said. “And I say, let me go and just leave her. I was like ‘I want to go.’ I just [got] that energy that I’m going to win.”
Ayana was toast, and Cheruiyot’s final lap was little more than a coronation for the new queen of the 5,000 meters. She crossed the line punching the air in delight, her winning margin three seconds over Obiri and seven over Ayana, avenging her 10,000 defeat and wiping away her previous Olympic nightmares with a sublime 4:26 final mile.
Gold medals are nothing new for Simms — when you’re the agent for Usain Bolt and Mo Farah, they have a tendency to blend together. But this one was special. He’s worked with Cheruiyot since 2004 and has seen Cheruiyot progress from prospect to world champion and now, finally, to Olympic champion.
“Vivian is like my daughter,” Simms said.
Having completed her trophy case on the track, Cheruiyot plans to move up to the roads. She’ll make her half marathon debut at next month’s Great North Run and would like to run the London Marathon next spring before returning to London to defend her 10,000 world title on the track next summer.
At the Olympics, fairytale endings are the exception rather than the rule. On the same night Cheruiyot earned her gold, defending champion Jenn Suhr bowed out in seventh in the pole vault, derailed by illness at the worst possible time. Justin Gatlin likely ran the final Olympic race of his life, the 4×100-meter relay, and the result won’t even count after his U.S. team was disqualified. But sometimes an athlete achieves that perfect blend of fitness, tactics and timing and creates an Olympic moment. Vivian Cheruiyot will remember hers as long as she lives.