Running World Mourns Death of Former World Cross Country Champion Agnes Tirop at Age 25
By Jonathan Gault
October 14, 2021
Even in a country that has produced its fair share of teen phenoms, Agnes Tirop was precocious.
At 16, she was a world junior medalist.
At 19, she was a world cross country champion.
And at 25, tragically, she was dead, as on Wednesday police found her body in the bedroom of her home in Iten, Kenya, amidst a pool of blood. Her husband is a suspect in the killing and has now gone missing, according to the BBC.
One of the world’s best female distance runners, Tirop was smack in the middle of her athletic prime. In August, she finished fourth in the 10,000 meters at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. On September 12 in Herzogenaurach, Germany, Tirop ran 30:01 for 10k on the roads to set a world record for a women’s-only race. Barely a month later, she would be dead.
Tirop’s death sent shockwaves throughout the running community, with tributes pouring in from around the world.
“I don’t have words to describe how devastating this,” tweeted US Olympic Marathon Trials champion Aliphine Tuliamuk.
Even the president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, offered his condolences.
“It is unsettling, utterly unfortunate and very sad that we’ve lost a young and promising athlete who, at a young age of 25 years, brought our country so much glory on the global athletics stage,” Kenyatta said in a statement.
Tirop’s agent, Gianni Demadonna, had just returned to his native Italy from Monday’s Boston Marathon when he heard the news about Tirop and struggled to make sense of it.
“I am speechless,” Demadonna told LetsRun.com. “What can we say?”
Tirop, he said, “was first of all a nice person, always polite”and “a fantastic athlete, one of the best that I represent.” He first met her in 2012 at the Kenyan junior track & field championships, where Tirop qualified for that summer’s World Junior Championships in Barcelona. Only 16, Tirop ran 15:36.74 in Barcelona to earn the bronze medal and establish herself as one of the world’s best young talents. She would add another bronze at the 2014 World Juniors in Eugene, Ore., setting the stage for the greatest accomplishment of her career the following year.
In March 2015, on an undulating course in Guiyang, China, Tirop became the second-youngest woman (after England’s Zola Budd in 1985) to win World XC, doing so at the age of 19.
Though she would miss out on the Olympics in 2016, over the next five years, Tirop would establish herself as one of the world’s top distance women on the track. She earned 10,000m World Championship bronze medals at London 2017 and Doha 2019, won Diamond Leagues in Birmingham (2018) and Stockholm (2019) and ran personal bests of 8:22.92 for 3,000, 14:20.68 for 5,000 (#10 all-time), and 30:25.20 for 10,000 on the track.
Her final season did not begin smoothly. Tirop developed a knee injury in November 2020 that prevented her from training. Early in 2021, she came to Demadonna’s base in Trento to receive treatment and only returned to training in April — just two months before the Kenyan Olympic trials. She made her season debut at the trials on June 17 and made the team in the 5,000 meters, placing third.
“She was smart and intelligent [in her rehab] and after 40 days, it was okay, she started [running again],” Demadonna said. “I was surprised at the trials she was so strong.”
Tirop followed that up by taking fourth in Tokyo before heading to Germany and breaking her first world record on roads on September 12. She ran her final race on October 3, clocking 30:20 at the Giants 10K in Geneva to finish second behind winner Kalkidan Gezahegne, who set the women’s world record for a mixed-gender 10k of 29:38.
While 2021 was a successful year for Tirop on the track and roads, it had been tumultuous at home. Unlike most runners, Tirop did not train with a group. She was instead coached by her husband, but earlier this year stopped working with him and began coaching herself.
“They had some situation that was not okay and she was doing [training] alone in the last two or three months,” Demadonna said.
He added that he knew Tirop and her husband had been fighting over the last three months, but was still shocked when he heard that Tirop had been killed.
“The last message I send, she said no, we are getting better,” Demadonna said. “I don’t know what has happened the last days.”
In the wake of Tirop’s death, a number of her Kenyan compatriots took to social media to campaign against violence against women.
“The assassination of Agnes Tirop is the assassination of freedom and women’s rights,” wrote Joan Chelimo, who finished 7th in the London Marathon earlier this month. “How many more Agnes do we have out there? How long will the society keep silent and entertain this kind of tragedy? How long will society keep empowering abuse over women? This tragedy should be a wake up call to all of us. This has to stop.”
Mary Ngugi, the third-placer in Monday’s Boston Marathon and widow of the late Sammy Wanjiru, wrote:
“I see it so often where a ‘husband’ has control of a woman, treats them as their slave with their athletic earnings and use domestic or psychological abuse to manipulate and control them.
“I am calling for a federation, government or anyone to use yesterdays tragedy as a kick in the ass to finally set something up for women so they can talk and find ways to escape their tortures.”
With two global medals on the track and a World XC title, Tirop had already put together a career any runner would be proud of. But it is sad to think of the moments she will never get to experience. In recent years, Tirop had resisted moving up in distance, but Demadonna believed it was only a matter of time before she moved up to test the half marathon and marathon, events in which an athlete with Tirop’s skill set should excel.
“For sure, she was having still a long career in front of her and could really run 2:16 or something like that in marathon and 64:00 in half marathon,” Demadonna said.
That we will never get the chance to find out how good Tirop could have been in those events is unfortunate, but it is truly tragic that her life was taken way too young. Rest in peace, Agnes.