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Alfred Koech: From casual labourer to varsity track captain in Australia.

Travelling back to his base in Nandi County on Saturday after watching the National Cross Country Championships at Nairobi's Uhuru Gardens, Abraham Mutai's mind was fixated on Wednesday's Valentine's Day party.

'Sollo', as he is popularly known, is the chairman of Athletics Kenya's Central Rift branch. He also owns the 'King Solomon's Garden', a fledgling garden restaurant off the Eldoret-Kapsabet road.

What would be on the lovers' menu, and the entertainment to accompany the romantic evening were very much on his mind.

It was, therefore, a welcome distraction when I asked him about a certain Alfred Koech as we cruised towards the airport in good speed for 'Sollo' to catch his 1pm Jambojet flight to Eldoret. 'The boy is doing well in Australia,' he responded, almost paying half attention as he took calls from his staff at the 'gardens.'

'The boy knew what he wanted, and he was very much focused,' he added in between the calls. I could make out one of his staff inquiring about Valentine's Day supplies while another must have been following up on the entertainment programme for Wednesday.

Never mind. The Alfred Koech in question is a young middle distance athlete who has struggled to beat extreme odds, rising to the position of captain at the famous Edith Cowan University in Perth. Raised by a single mother, the 25-year-old Koech's grandmother had to sell prime land to finance his education.

'My mother (Tecla Tuwei) was a primary school teacher and with six children in the family, it was quite difficult,' Koech, or 'Sergeant' as he likes calling himself, told me while on holiday in Kenya last month.

'She was struggling but she used to encourage me to push on with life.'

As a high school student at Malel Primary School and Kosirai Secondary School, both in Nandi County, Koech was a good runner and bright in class too. But he paid little attention to athletics, despite being in the same class at illustrious athletes Peter Some and James Magut.

SHAPE ATHLETICS CAREER

The pair later turned out to be 2013 Paris Marathon (Some) and 2014 Commonwealth Games 1,500 metres (Magut) champions.

In 2006, Koech finished second to Magut in the 400m and 800m races at an inter-classes competition at Kosirai, and what happened next would shape his athletics career, forever.

'After finishing second in these races, I didn't show up for the final,' he recalled.

'And when the teacher called out my name and found out I was missing, he launched a manhunt and found me somewhere in the compound, chewing sugar cane. Disinterested.'

A painful caning followed, punishment that effectively launched Koech's athletics career.

'The teacher (Benjamin Lagat) told me he was punishing me because I was wasting my talent.'

It was then that Koech joined Kisorio at a residential athletics training camp run by 'Sollo.'

'I used to live in the camp from form one until form four and Abraham Mutai would charge me nothing,' he recalls.

'He told me since I was good in academics, I should give it my all.'

Koech's busy schedule included vending milk during the school holidays. After sitting his form four exams, Koech's dream was to travel to the United States of America on an athletics scholarship.

'After doing well in some running trials, I failed to get a US visa. I was devastated. I felt it was taking too long for me to make the breakthrough and, disappointed, I started working part time at construction sites.'

There was a lifeline when Qatari officials came to Nandi County, eager to sign up some Kenyan runners who would then change their names and take up Qatari citizenship. Some runners did, but Koech's mother wouldn't let him shift allegiance. 'My mother wasn't for the idea of me changing my name. I was forced to go back into the construction work to make ends meet.'

He then took up a job as a casual labourer at DL Koisagat Tea factory where he worked from 2010 until the end of 2011.

'I invested my earnings in cattle farming, and my mind was now fixed on studying law at Moi University,' he reminisced. 'It was then that someone floated the idea of studying in Australia. But, unfortunately, it was quite expensive and I didn't have any money.'

Koech, undeterred, then launched a self-help group of 30 youths focusing in poultry farming and nurturing tree seedlings for sale.

The Kibagenge Self-Help Group started well but profit margins were minimal.

'After sharing out the profits, we would remain with very little.' This is when he decided to focus on athletics full-time, joining a camp run by Mutai and Italian coach Claudio Berardelli.

GAINED ADMISSION

His grandmother, Romana Sambutiey, sold a prime piece of land with Koech's extended family also contributing some cash that gained him admission to university in Australia.

Life wasn't any easier when he landed in Australia where he is currently studying for a degree in Social Science and criminology at the Edith Cowan University in 2013. 'I needed to pay for my hostel accommodation and I applied for part-time jobs about 400 times, getting about 150 regrets while the rest didn't reply.

'It was a friend, whom I knew at Kosirai (Caren Kemei), who took me in for a short while before I found my footing.'

Then while jogging in the park on a Wednesday, February 6, 2014, he was approached by one Sarah Jamieson.

The Australian middle distance star, a three-time Olympian and silver medallist in the 1,500m at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, had since hung up her spikes and was now a coach.

'She welcomed me to her running group and they would support me and also gave me ideas on where I could work to earn a living. It was then that I started competing in the local races, winning some. My university (Edith Cowan) then appointed me track and field captain, a position I've held for the last two years.'

Driven to mitigate the hardships youths back in Nandi County faced, which he endured, pre-university, Koech launched the Landson Foundation in 2012 to help open up opportunities for the less fortunate. The foundation was launched in Mosoriot last December by Nandi Senator Samson Cherargei.

'I like working with the youth because they are the future of the nation,' he says. 'I was supported by Mutai who didn't ask for a cent, so I thought if I supported one or two athletes to make it big, that would be my satisfaction.'

Koech has received tremendous support from communities and sports stores in Australia and has so far shipped in over 200 pairs of running shoes which he has donated to local runners in Nandi.

During his Christmas break last year, Koech imported a Mercedes Benz saloon car to gift his mother who struggled to see him through school, a gesture he hopes other athletes will emulate.

And now that the Commonwealth Games will come to his second home of Australia from April 4-15, his plans?

'I was aiming to compete for Kenya at the Commonwealth Games but, unfortunately, I picked up a knee injury and my coach advised that I take a break until August. But I will be there to cheer 'Team Kenya' and show them around Australia!,' was his parting shot.

No doubt an inspirational tale of triumph over adversity from Nandi County.
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Publication:Daily Nation, Kenya (Nairobi, Kenya)
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 11, 2018
Words:1432
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