The Catholic missionary and the Masai running champion

A story that has become the stuff of legend in Kenya

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

19 July 2014

9:00 AM

In 2012, David Rudisha, a Masai warrior from Kenya, ran what many say was the greatest race in the history of the Olympics. He led the 800m final from the front and smashed his own world record, becoming the first man ever to run under 1.41. In the words of Seb Coe, ‘Bolt was good, Rudisha was magnificent.’ In interviews after the race he thanked one man above all others for his success: an Irish Catholic missionary named Brother Colm O’Connell — a man with no official athletics training who had nonetheless been David’s coach since he first began to run. And if David wins another gold at the Commonwealth Games next week, he’ll have Colm to thank again.

Brother Colm arrived in Kenya from Ireland as a missionary in 1976, more than ten years before David Rudisha was born. Colm had the idea that he might teach geography at St Patrick’s, a boys’ school at the edge of the Rift Valley. He thought he’d stay three years. Early on, he was asked to lend a hand on the running track, and discovered a passion that has lasted to this day. For Colm, it was ‘a way of getting to know the kids outside the classrooms’ and ‘anything I learnt, I learnt from them in those early days’.

What happened next is now the stuff of legend in Kenya. Under Colm’s guidance, more than 20 Olympic and World Championship medal winners would emerge from this tiny school. The exact number is unclear; as Colm says, ‘I don’t like to count them.’

IAAF 'Day In The Life' in Kenya
Brother Colm O’Connell acknowledged as the world’s most successful coach of endurance runners

When I first met Colm in 2004, I was struck by his situation. By now he was the last of the Irish Patrician Brothers left in the school, and he seemed to be at a crossroads. He was no longer coaching the school athletics team, but continued to run camps for youngsters in the holidays. Usually, when he trained boys and girls, they would leave his camp by the age of 18 and go off to other professional coaches for their senior training, but that year he took on his first professional senior athletes.

We returned in 2005 with the idea of making a film, starting out by documenting one of Colm’s holiday training camps. What neither Ed Sunderland, my fellow producer, nor I could foresee on that first day, when 50 teenagers came through the school gates, was that a painfully shy, very tall Masai boy would turn out to be one of the greatest athletes in the world. Of course, neither could Colm.

Over the next seven years we returned to see the unfolding story of David Rudisha and Brother Colm. Their Olympic and world-beating glory was not straightforward. David was injured before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and was knocked out of the World Championships a year later. Both he and Colm lost close friends in Kenya’s post-election riots, and we saw how much they suffered. But in 2012 in London, on the grandest stage of all, under the most intense spotlight, they brought home the gold.

These days Colm has become a celebrity figure in athletics. He is often referred to as ‘running guru Brother Colm’. But what is his secret? How does he keep doing it? Steve Cram describes him as ‘just a lovely guy, with a lot of knowledge about his sport, that he imparts to these great youngsters’. This is true — but I believe there’s more to it than that. Brother Colm does have a secret weapon, he has his faith. He is after all a man of God and this shows itself in practical ways.

IAAF 'Day In The Life' in Kenya
David Rudisha walks with his coach Brother Colm O’Connell

It means that athletics is not the be-all and end-all of his life. It means he is not interested in the financial side of coaching, and so he often prefers to hold a young athlete back from competing too often, allowing them to develop in their own time rather than urging them to run for income. Unlike most coaches, he doesn’t follow his athletes to events. He’s never been to the Olympics, for example, and when David stood on the start line at London in 2012, Colm was in his armchair back in the Kenyan highlands.

Ultimately, his athletes make their own choices and run their own races. The crucial decision of David Rudisha’s career was to set the pace and always remain in front, which resulted in 41 victories in his next 43 races. That decision he made entirely on his own.

Most importantly, Colm’s faith gives him an incredible sense of calm, which his athletes absorb. Over the years of filming him, I’d concluded this comes from his sense of having a bigger purpose in life. He says, ‘You never retire as a missionary, you never think, right that’s it, I’ve achieved everything. Life goes on. There is life after Olympic gold, you know.’ This is the key: the mission was never to win the Olympics. As Colm says, ‘My mission is to help young people have a better life. It could have been anything — running just happened to come along.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Jim de Zoete and Ed Sunderland’s film 100 Seconds to Beat the World: the David Rudisha Story is on BBC Four at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, 22 July.

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Show comments
  • Lemniscate

    I think a bigger factor is the genetics of the intake of that particular school. This brother wouldn’t have as much luck coaching Japanese boys and girls for long distance running.

    • Doggie Roussel

      No, the Japanese don’t have lions chasing them !

  • Mike Rosoft

    Each of us should remember that our mind is our sharpest sword. Hone your blade: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0094KY878