Feb 16, 2010
Keeping pace with National Champion Sam Chelanga
by Daniel Martinez
Redshirt junior Sam Chelanga has been at Liberty University for just over a year, has made headlines, set school and national records and turned heads in Liberty’s direction, all for his running prowess.
Yet there was a time — when Chelanga was in high school back in his native Kenya — when he was required to pick a sport to play. Instead of running, he chose a sport that requires excellent hand-eye coordination, tremendous speed, quick thinking and boundless athleticism — ping-pong.
“I chose it because it was easy,” Chelanga said with a shrug.
“I wasn’t even playing,” Chelanga confessed. “When the teacher came, I would just try to act like I was playing.”
It was an unassuming start for an exceptional athlete, who was born in a 500-person village in Nairobi, the youngest in a family of nine. Like any other kid, Chelanga went to school, attended Sunday School and looked up to his older siblings. When he was 12, his family moved to a new farm in Kabarak, Kenya. By this time, Chelanga had an older brother, Joshua Chelanga, who was competing in, and winning, marathons all over the world.
Chelanga did not start running long distances regularly until 2004, and, in 2006, he started running competitively. That was the same year he came to the United States. That year, running for New Jersey university Farleigh Dickinson, he met a successful long-distance runner named Josh McDougal.
McDougal, a graduate of Liberty in 2008 who still owns school records for the outdoor 5,000-meter, the indoor 3,000-meter and the outdoor mile, met Chelanga at the 2007 IC4A in Boston, where the two, and others, were qualifying for nationals. They hit it off right away.
“I like the different perspective he has, coming from Kenya,” McDougal said. “When we first met, we trained together every day.”
Legend has it, at the IC4A, the two runners got to talking, and Chelanga confided in McDougal.
“He wasn’t happy where he was,” Liberty Cross Country coach Brant Tolsma remembers. “(He said) he wanted to move, and Josh said ‘You ought to contact my coach.’”
Once McDougal introduced them, Tolsma said the potential was clear: “We wanted that team (Chelanga and McDougal, both running for Liberty) at nationals, but the Lord had another plan.”
On Nov. 22, 2009, Chelanga found himself in a pack of runners — including seven Olympians — who thundered their way across the fields of the LaVern Gibson 10K course in Terra Haute, Indiana. But Chelanga was not in the lead.
“It was a really great field,” Tolsma said of that group of runners — the group competing for the NCAA Division I National Cross Country Championship. “We weren’t looking for a win. We were just looking to see how long he could keep up the pace.”
But something Tolsma knows now — that he may have known then — was that, “Chelanga doesn’t like to lose.”
According to Tolsma, Chelanga held the pace, impressively remaining in seventh or eighth place, refusing to slip into obscurity, refusing to fall behind. He also failed to tire out, and, soon, he was in fourth place. Then one of the other men in the pack broke away and started running up ahead, and Chelanga went with him.
“With three laps to go, he left that guy,” Tolsma said. “And I was like, ‘Whoa.’”
As excited as Chelanga looks in the pictures taken at race’s end — raising both fists in triumph, his Liberty University colors on full display — that excitement was about finishing in first place. After all, he had won a 10,000-meter event, running the nearly six mile course faster than his competitors — he got to break the tape.
“When I was done, I was told I broke the NCAA record,” Chelanga said.
His time? 28:41.3. The size of his record: 22 seconds better than the previous course mark. His margin of victory over runner-up David McNeil of Northern Arizona: 25 seconds.
“Far and away his best race,” McDougal said.
While Chelanga is an extraordinary athlete, who has accomplished extraordinary things (and his collegiate record time on the Terra Haute 10K course is certainly not the only one of those), he has elements of normalcy. He does not live and breathe celebrity. He listens to soft rock, pop, hip-hop and Christian music. He’s a government major with a minor in criminal justice. He has an aunt who lives in the States but has not seen the rest of his family since summer.
“He’s a really relaxed, laid-back, humble guy,” Tolsma said. “He’s not all about athletics, and he’s not all about himself.”
“He has super funny stories,” McDougal said.
Of course, there are some extraordinary things about Chelanga. During indoor track season, he runs anywhere from 70-80 miles a week, and he considers that a “low” number. During outdoor season, it is more like 100 miles a week. Chelanga loves the traveling and competition of meets. To Chelanga, “the bigger the meet, the more fun.”
He also believes his great running ability is a gift from God.
“You can’t come from nowhere to be good like I am,” he said.
The next time he has a race, Chelanga will throw on his Liberty colors, stretch out, observe his competition, then, when it is time, break into what Tolsma calls his “unique, very light and flowing” stride. And he will probably keep pace with the runners, because, of course, he hates to lose.
But between now and then, Chelanga will most likely be seen chatting with friends, poring over his books, attending class and going to church.
“(He’s) just the nice kind of guy that you’d like to have around, even if he didn’t run fast,” Tolsma said.
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