October 20, 1968, Estadio Olímpico Universitario, Mexico City. Before 83,700 spectators, Kipchoge Keino toes the line in the Olympic 1,500M Final, competing against one of the strongest fields ever assembled including 21 year-old World Record holder Jim Ryun of Wichita, Kansas. Half a world away in the Nandi village of Kipsamo, in the heart of the Great Rift Valley, Kip’s house overflows with hushed villagers surrounding the radio and straining to hear the call of the race.
As Keino sprints to the finish 20M ahead of Ryun, breaking the tape in an Olympic record time of 3:34.9, 10 year-old Peter Koech shouts with joy and Kipsamo erupts in celebration of Kenya’s first-ever Olympic Gold Medal in the 1,500M run (Naftali Temu won Kenya’s 1st Gold in the 10,000M a week before).
Peter, along with his fellow Nandi and Kalenjin peers, was inspired by Kip’s heroics. They learned from the pioneers of the opportunities to earn money far beyond what they could ever hope to earn at home. Enough money to buy land, cattle, and raise a family while representing Kenya in far off lands and bringing glory to their people. Peter and his friends turned their dreams into reality, dominating world distance running for the next half century. The steeplechase, in particular, is Kenya’s proprietary event. In the 43 years from 1973 to present, Kenyans have held the World Record in 37 of them (current WR holder Stephen Cherono, from Keiyo District, holds Qatari citizenship under the name Saif Saaeed Shaheen).
Ben Jipcho set a new record of 8:19 in 1973. Then during his incredible 4 WR in 81-day summer of 1978, Henry Rono lowered the record to 8:05. Henry’s record stood for 11 years, until Peter Koech ran the fastest steeplechase ever, with a time of 8:05.35 in Stockholm Sweden on July 3, 1989.
After running for the Kenyan Army, like Kip did, Peter was among the first Kenyans to receive a scholarship to an American university. Washington State Coach John Chaplin visited the Kenyan Track Championships in Mombasa, where he offered Peter the opportunity of a lifetime – 4 years of training, racing, and learning at a top university. Peter made the most of it, winning the NCAA Steeplechase title in 1985, earning a degree in Social Science, and later being inducted into the WSU Hall of Fame.
Peter’s favorite times during college were the summers. He and his friends would head for Europe and the big summer meets: Rome, Oslo, Stockholm, Monaco, London, Lausanne, Paris, Zurich, Brussels and Berlin. Huge crowds, prize money, adventures and epic stories week after week. As Peter recalled, track is much bigger in Europe and the fans are very knowledgeable. Just imagine the times they had, while pushing the limits of human speed and endurance in front of packed houses and competing against the world’s best!
Next – the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the story of why so many Kenyan runners live and train in northern New Mexico.