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In Good Company
For the first time in program history, Liberty will host the 2008 New Balance Big South Cross Country Championships presented by UCS, this Saturday at the Campus East intramural fields. Sam Chelanga and the Flames will seek their fourth straight Big South title in the men's 8K championship at 10:30 a.m. The women's 5K championship will follow at 11:30.
An old adage states, "It's not what you know, but who you know." The statement is most often applied to job searches, but it also seems fitting for Liberty redshirt sophomore cross country/track & field standout Sam Chelanga. Sage advice from some highly decorated distance runners has helped transform the native of Nairobi, Kenya from a high school ping pong player into one of the nation's top collegiate distance runners.
In his most recent race, on Oct. 18, Chelanga grabbed the attention of the NCAA running community with his dominating performance in the Pre-Nationals men's 8K white race. The diminutive runner in a white Liberty uniform won a race which included 11 nationally-ranked teams by a whopping 44 seconds. Moreover, his time of 22:51.3 on the approximately five-mile course shaved five seconds off the existing course, school and Big South Conference records, set one year ago by former Liberty standout and 2007 NCAA National Cross Country Champion Josh McDougal.
Such an incredible performance did not exactly come from out of nowhere. After all, Chelanga had just shattered the course record at the Brooks Paul Short Run two weeks earlier. In addition, he was a two-time All-American as a freshman in 2006-07 and owns stellar track personal bests of 13:24 for 5,000 meters and 28:15 for 10,000 meters.
The most amazing thing about Chelanga's rapidly-expanding athletic resume, however, is the fact he did not run while attending Bartolimo High School. "We had to play a sport in high school," explained Chelanga. "But, I really didn't like running. So, I chose ping pong, even though I wasn't very good at it."
Chelanga had planned on attending college in Kenya. However, his high school grade average of a B fell just shy of the B+ needed to earn a collegiate scholarship. So, he went to live with his older brother, Joshua Chelanga.
Twice a day, the elder Chelanga, a world-class marathon runner who won the 2007 Rotterdam Marathon, would leave the house for a training run. Among his training partners was then-marathon world record holder Paul Tergat. The group often encouraged Chelanga to join them, and one day in April 2004, he decided, "Let's go out there and see what happens."
"On that first run, I finished way behind all the other runners," recalled Chelanga. It was certainly not an unexpected result. Imagine a person who had never touched a baseball bat immediately stepping into the batter's box to face Roger Clemens. However, Chelanga stuck with it and eventually saw his efforts beginning to pay off.
"I was usually so far behind the other runners that I couldn't see anybody else for most of the run," stated Chelanga. "However, one day, I saw a guy who had fallen back from the main group. I got excited and realized, ‘I might be able to catch somebody.' I started chasing him and for the first time, started to really enjoy running."
Chelanga still aspired to attend college, but also wanted to continue running. He learned how could fulfill both desires at the same time, from his brother and Tergat. They told Chelanga that he could attend an American university, where he could both earn a degree and compete in the NCAA.
It took until the 2006-07 school year until things worked out for Chelanga to do just that. In the meantime, he was able to do some training with another world-class distance runner, four-time Boston Marathon champion, Robert Cheruiyot.
Chelanga, at the suggestion of his brother and Tergat, enrolled at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. And he found immediate success during the 2006 cross country season. The year culminated with Chelanga placing as the top freshman at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championship and overall in 16th place. He actually beat McDougal in that race, but it was not until the 2007 IC4A Indoor Track & Field Championships that the two formally met for the first time.
Both athletes arrived in Boston with a common goal of qualifying for the following weekend's NCAA Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships in the 5,000-meter run. Recalled Chelanga, "I went up to Josh before the race to ask if he could help me qualify for the national meet. He simply replied, ‘Just sit behind me, and we'll be fine.'"
McDougal and Chelanga not only qualified for the national meet that fateful afternoon, but both also established new personal-best times. McDougal ran 13:37.32 to win the race, with Chelanga finishing second in 13:46.39.
Ironically, Chelanga defeated McDougal at the NCAA national meet five days later, placing fourth to McDougal's eighth. "That's the highest I've finished at a national meet," said Chelanga, "and I'm very grateful to Josh, because he helped me get there."
In total, Chelanga and McDougal raced each other five times during the 2006-07 cross country and track & field campaigns, with McDougal winning three of their five head-to-head meetings. As Chelanga's running career at Liberty progresses, comparisons to 14-time All-American McDougal will be inevitable.
Liberty Head Cross Country/Track & Field Coach Brant Tolsma, who has had the luxury of coaching both Chelanga and McDougal, provided the following analysis. "Josh is stronger, heavier and more intense when he runs," observed Tolsma. "Meanwhile, Sam is more aerobically gifted and lighter.
"I believe Josh would beat Sam in any race of a mile or shorter, while Sam would prevail in a 5K or longer. A 3K race between the two of them would be pretty interesting."
Chelanga and McDougal quickly struck up a friendship after meeting at the IC4A indoor meet, and Chelanga learned more about Liberty University. He realized it was a place where he could meet his three primary objectives of working with trustworthy coaches, studying pre-law and strengthening his Christian faith. As a result, he decided to transfer to Liberty in the summer of 2007.
At Liberty, Chelanga found a pair of talented training partners in McDougal and new Liberty graduate assistant coach David Cheromei, a fellow Kenyan who won 10 NAIA national titles at Virginia Intermont. However, Chelanga also learned that he needed to complete a year in residency at Liberty, before becoming eligible to compete.
"I was definitely disappointed to find out I couldn't run for Liberty last year," remembered Chelanga. "However, I decided to do all I could to make sure Josh was in good shape. If he does well, than I have done my job well, I told myself. When he won the national cross country championship, I was satisfied."
Chelanga's selflessness in handling the difficult situation was not at all out of character, according to Tolsma. "Sam is really a special guy," stated Tolsma. "He's very humble, easy-going and amicable. He has a good view of the big picture."
Chelanga did some competing of his own last season in open races, "just to give myself confidence that I still had it," he explained. He certainly succeeded in achieving his objective, posting several noteworthy performances and defeating some talented foes in the process.
Chelanga won his section of the 10K at Stanford's Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational in a personal-best 28:15.99, defeating a trio of runners who went on to become All-Americans in the 10K at the 2008 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field Championships. He later beat 2008 Olympian Alistair Cragg (Ireland) in the 5K at the Reebok Grand Prix, while clocking a personal-best time of 13:24.73.
Now that Chelanga is finally eligible to join his Liberty teammates on the track and cross country course this season, he is not taking anything for granted. "This is a privilege that was taken away from me last year," noted Chelanga. "So, I'm taking every race seriously. It means a lot to me to be able to run for Liberty."
Such passion, combined with hard work and an uncommon running ability, has put Chelanga in position to follow in the footsteps of great runners like his brother, Tergat, Cheruiyot, McDougal and Cheromei. They have all played important roles in making Chelanga a viable contender for Liberty's second straight NCAA National Cross Country Championship.
Paul Carmany is an assistant athletics communications director for Liberty University's volleyball, women's basketball and cross country/track and field programs.