Kenya: Janeth Jepkosgei - I Wanted to Be a Nurse

24 September 2020

Janeth Jepkosgei Busienei would probably not be well known had she decided to pursue her first passion, nursing.

However, a meeting with 1988 Olympics 800m champion, Paul Ereng, changed her life completely.

What followed was a successfully career that brought about a number of accolades. The highlight of this was at the 2007 World Championship in Athletics, where she made history by becoming the first female Kenyan middle distance runner to achieve gold over 800m. In 2008, she won silver at the Beijing Olympics finishing behind another Kenyan, 18-year-old Pamela Jelimo.

Two decades since winning two gold medals at the National Secondary School Championships, Jepkosgei, commonly known as 'Eldoret Express' after the speedy buses that roared through the Kenyan roads in the 1990s and earlier years into the millennium, is happy at her achievements and proud to have nurtured talents along the way.

Former 800m champion Eunice Sum, 2014 Commonwealth Games 5,000m champion Mercy Cherono are some of her protégés.

Despite her last high profile competition coming at the 2015 World Championship in Beijing, Jepkosgei, 36, revealed she is not about to retire just yet.

"I'm still active in athletics and I was in good shape before the coronavirus pandemic. We are still in discussion with my coach to see which race I will be participating in once competitions resume across the globe," says the mother of one.

The dwindling fortunes of Kenya in short and middle distance races led Jepkosgei to start the Kapchemoiywo Training camp in Nandi County where she hosts a number of upcoming athletes during school holidays.

Changed citizenship

But it could have turned out differently for Jepkosgei after an incident in 2005 almost made her switch allegiance to Bahrain. She won the 800m race at national trials for the 2006 Worlds but did not secure an "A" qualifying time. She did beat the "B"-qualifying time, but Athletics Kenya (AK) did not send her or any other Kenyan 800m female runner to represent Kenya at the competition.

Armed with papers for transfer to Bahrain, an angry Jepkosgei went to Riadha house in Nairobi where she handed the forms to the then AK president, the late Isaiah Kiplagat who took the forms and tore them.

"Kiplagat was like my father and when I told him that I was shifting to Bahrain, he took my papers and tore them. He then asked me to continue training hard for the next event which was Commonwealth Games in 2006," she recalls.

Born on December 1983, Jepkosgei hails from Kabirirsang in Nandi County, known for producing world beaters in short and long distance races.

Two kilometres to the west is the ancestral home of former world 800m record holder, Wilson Kipketer and Kipchoge Keino, the first man to break the 3,000m steeplechase record in 1965.

Henry Rono, the man who broke four world records (3,000m, 3,000m steeplechase, 5,000m and 10,000m) in just 81 days in 1978 and former 800m Olympics champion Wilfred Bungei also come from the same village.

Some few kilometres from Bungei's home is Timothy Kiptanui, who finished fourth in the 1,500m race in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

African 800m record holder Sammy Kosgei and Olympic silver medallists Peter Koech (3,000m steeplechase) and Ben Kogo (10,000m) are some of the notable former athletes who hail from the region.

Heptathlon champion

She went to Kapsumbeiywa Primary School in Nandi County, before joining Singore Girls High School, famous for producing Kenyan women athletes. Here she met Viola Kibiwott, Vivian Cheruiyot, Sally Chepyego and they went on to dominate races locally.

"While in high school, I met upcoming athletes whom we also teamed up at the Bro Colm 'O Connell training camp in Iten during the holidays and were motivated one another. They were younger but we didn't overlook them because all of us were just striving to give our best," adds Jepkosgei.

Interestingly, Jepkosgei used to run in all the races except the 10,000m race and even played volleyball and hockey.

She also took up Heptathlon, and went on to win the National Secondary Schools title while in Form One.

After completing her secondary school education, she met renowned coach Paul Ereng who asked her if she could join the High Performance Training Camp in Eldoret, which was sponsored by International Olympics Committee.

Jepkosgei declined saying that she wanted to further her studies. She later agreed to the request.

"Ereng saw my potential and he became very influential in shaping my career. He told me that it was the perfect chance to get the scholarship and after exams, I took my bags home and went straight to the camp," she says.

At the 1999 National Youth trials for the World Youth Championships, she was entered into the 800m race because the 400m hurdles race was not in the list. She finished second and made the team to Poland for the world event where she reached the semi-final stage.

First gold

In 2002, she was in the team that went to Jamaica for the World Youth Championships and she bagged gold after clocking 2:00.80 in the 800m - her first international accolade.

This was the launching pad her career needed and she decided to concentrate on the 800m race.

She later received a scholarship and was supposed to fly to the US, but she managed to ask for more time to participate in the World Junior Championships trials where she secured a place to represent Kenya.

She joined Rosa Associati Management and that was the end of her ambitions to further her education.

"I met the Dr Rosa from Rosa Associati Management officials who took me under their stable and nurtured my talent because I was determined to run and that's how my career started taking shape in the distance," explains Jepkosgei.

In 2006, she bounced back from the disappointment of missing the World Championship and was selected to represent the country in the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia where she won gold before winning a silver medal in the Continental Cup in Athens the same year.

2007 proved to be a an awesome year as she won gold in the Worlds in Osaka, Japan after timing 1:56.04, beating Morocco's Hasna Benhassi (1:56.99), while Myte Martinez from Spain settled for third in 1:57.62.

"When I got into the finals, I was nervous before the race but I remember my coach motivating me. That is how I bagged victory, which was the sweetest moment in my entire career," she says.

At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Jepkosgei settled for silver before winning another silver medal the following year at the World Championships held in Berlin, Germany after finishing behind South Africa's Caster Semenya.

Maternity leave

In 2009 during the World Championships in Berlin, Jepkosgei was in the limelight again after bagging silver behind South Africa's Caster Semenya before claiming another silver in the 2011 Daegu Championships- her last medal.

In 2015, she was in the team that represented Kenya in the World Championships held in Beijing but failed to reach the finals.

Upon her return she proceeded to maternity leave missing the 2016 Rio Olympics Games where she later gave birth to Becky Olympia Jepchirchir.

"I decided to name my daughter Olympia because that was the year I was supposed to go to the Olympics Games but I wanted a break from the sport," says Jepkosgei.

She recalls her battles with Maria Mutola from Mozambique in the two lap race.

"I competed with Mutola severally and her training techniques was something to admire and that's what gave me morale to work harder in training," says Jepkosgei.

She says the dwindling fortunes of Kenya in short and middle distance women's races needs to be addressed.

"I feel we created a gap in the 800m because there is no strong athlete who could inherit from us. That is why I had to start a youth camp where we are trying to nurture athletes with my focus on the two lap race.

There is need for sports development and such camps have always been witnessed in Iten and Torongo, Baringo County and other areas across the country, but it's high time we hold hands together and develop talents as one way of improving the sport. We normally collaborate with the teachers who help us identify talents in various schools," adds Jepkosgei.

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