Obiri steeling herself for Tokyo Olympics

Kenyan runner Hellen Obiri was exhausted and discouraged five months ago, after placing a disappointing fifth in the 10,000 metres race in Doha. She was almost too dispirited to defend her 5,000 metres world championship title.

But she steeled herself to run again, and clinched her position with a second world championship win at the shorter distance.

“It’s like you’re going for a war, so you should be ready for everything,” she told Reuters.

Obiri, an engaging 30-year-old mother of one, is not afraid of failure.

She made the final in the 1,500 metres race at the 2012 Olympics, but stumbled and finished last – what she describes as the worst moment of her career.

Four years later, she won silver behind her hero, fellow Kenyan Vivian Cheruiyot, at the 5,000 metres in Rio.

Obiri, currently nursing a back injury, is hardened to the highs and lows of her sport.

“There are injuries, there is falling down,” she told Reuters. “I … keep on going and trust myself.”

“I don’t know to fear anything.”

Born in southwest Kenya, Obiri is the fourth of six children born to farmer parents. Her father encouraged her to run when she was a girl. Watching runners from her home village also inspired her.

But when she joined the Kenyan Defence Forces in 2009, netball was her sport. Her father, however, kept pushing her to return to running.

“You have a talent,” she remembers him saying to her.

Athletics - 2019 IAAF World Cross Country Championships - Aarhus, Denmark - March 30, 2019 Kenya's Hellen Obiri celebrates winning the women's race REUTERS/Aleksandra Szmigiel

She also found inspiration from other Kenyan athletes competing globally, like Cheruiyot who became a friend, telling her she could join the stars.

“That’s when I started training seriously,” Obiri said.

“I loved watching the athletes doing sports outside the country. So I said, maybe I should try and become an elite athlete.”

She was selected for the Kenyan team and sent to the world championships in 2011 in South Korea and competed at the 1,500 metres – her first international race. She made the final but fell in the middle of the race. She picked herself up and finished 10th.

“I didn’t have any experience, so maybe I thought, when somebody fell in the race, you should get up and continue racing.”

Obiri was not discouraged. The following year, she won gold in Turkey at the 3,000 metres world indoor championships.

“That’s my best memorable moment,” she said. “You come from nowhere to win gold medal. It was just like a dream for me.”

No fear

In view of her back injury, Obiri plans to be selective in the races she competes in this year to avoid fatigue and injuries as she trains for the Tokyo Olympics.

She has yet to decide what distance she will compete in.

Obiri said she is hurt by the scepticism that she and other Kenyan athletes face globally, a legacy of years of doping scandals.

Hellen Obiri en route to her 5000m African title in Asaba (PHOTO/IAAF/Bob Ramsak)

Kenya, one of the world leaders in track & field, has had 138 athletes test positive for doping from 2004 to August 2018, according to a September 2018 World Anti-Doping Agency report.

Fifty-four Kenyan athletes have been sanctioned since April 2017, the Athletics Integrity Unit said in a statement. That number does not include ongoing or pending cases, it added.

“Even if you win, they don’t trust you,” Obiri said in frustration. “I am running good. I am running clean.”

When not training and winning medals, Obiri likes to cook, sleep and play hide and seek with her four-year-old daughter Tania. Does she want to follow in her famous mother’s footsteps?

“She wants to be a lawyer,” Obiri said, smiling.