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Kenyan Runners Find Opportunity At UAA
Eager to leave the tiny Kenyan village of Kapsabet and follow in the footsteps of his brother, David Kiplagat dreamed of running at an American college.
But his arrival at UAA came almost by accident.
Kiplagat’s brother Solomon, a former Tulane University runner, stumbled onto the Seawolves cross-country running team while scouting schools for his brother on the Internet. He contacted UAA head coach Michael Friess, who reached David Kiplagat and eventually offered him a scholarship.
Kenyan runner Cornelious Sigei of Nairobi also discovered UAA on the Internet while researching U.S. colleges. Alaska stood out, he said, because it was near the top of the list alphabetically. He contacted Friess, who happened to have an extra scholarship available.
These days, the World Wide Web has turned into an effective recruiting tool to land athletes from all over the world.
But Kiplagat and Sigei probably recruited UAA more than the Seawolves recruited them. Getting to the States was that important.
In Kenya, a higher education represents power and an opportunity for a better life, something Kiplagat and Sigei are desperate to gain.
“An American degree holds so much value,” said Sigei, an accounting major with a profound Kenyan accent.
For Kiplagat, a freshman who redshirted last year, having his education paid for while he studies for a management degree is a dream. He comes from a rural village with an average income of $100 a month. Large families, like his eight brothers, three sisters, share tiny houses.
“This is a good place, man,” Kiplagat said in a thick Kenyan accent. “I can go to school, and I can train.
“It’s quite hard in Kenya for me to go to university. My parents can not afford to pay.”
Both runners stay in touch with family and friends on a regular basis. But they said nothing beats having a fellow countryman on the same team.
After all, nobody else can speak fluent Swahili.
“When I feel like I am missing home, I speak Swahili with David. And I just feel that much more at home,” Sigei said. “He’s like a brother to me.”
Kiplagat and Sigei share a campus apartment with teammates Drew Dickson of Palmer and Stig Yngve of Kodiak. With two Alaskans and two Africans living under the same roof, the language barrier can be a challenge at times.
But Dickson said they find a way to make it work.
“A little different culture is nice to mix in there,” he said. “It’s pretty simple living. Runners, you know.
“Train, eat and study.”
You might think getting a pair of Kenyans was like winning the lottery for the UAA cross country team.
Friess is cautious about labeling Kiplagat and Sigei can’t-miss talents just because they’re Kenyans.
The east African country has long been recognized as producing many of the best distance runners in the world. Running is the national sport there, Friess said, much like soccer in Brazil and nordic skiing in Norway.
Yet that doesn’t mean all Kenyans run, or that they necessarily all run fast. That’s just like assuming all tall people are good at basketball.
“It is a stereotype” Friess said. “Not all of them are fast, but there are a high number of athletes that fit that bill.”
Kiplagat may be one of them. As UAA’s No. 1 runner, he’s capable of covering 5 kilometers in under 15 minutes. Sigei is closer to the back of the pack, running two minutes slower than his countryman.
Then again, Kiplagat makes a lot of people look slow with a beautiful, fluid stride that makes it look like he was born to run.
“He’s probably faster than anybody we’ve had,” said Friess, in his 16th year at UAA.
You’d never hear Kiplagat brag about it, though. He remains humble, Friess said, thanks to his modest nature.
“Some of the really fast athletes are sort of snobby about the whole thing. But David is genuine. You don’t get any sense of him thinking he’s any better than anybody else.”
Kiplagat’s has clocked a 5-K time of 14:51, but Friess thinks he can go even faster because of his willingness to work hard. Plus, Kiplagat comes from a family of runners.
“He’s got good genes,” Friess said. “He comes from a family where if I say sub-14 5-K, that’s nothing. He’s got brothers who have run a lot faster than that.”
This past summer he asserted himself as one of Anchorage’s top runners by placing second in three premier races — the Heart Run, the Menard Memorial 5-K and the Mayor’s Midnight Sun Half-Marathon. He won the Alaska Serigraphics 10-K Classic.
Former UAA all-conference runner Todd List raced against Kiplagat this summer. List predicted Kiplagat will end up one of the Seawolves of all time.
“Conference champion, top five at regionals, getting to nationals — all that,” List said.
The hype began to build even before Kiplagat ran his first race in college. But once he made his UAA debut, he didn’t disappoint.
Kiplagat posted 5-K victories in his first two college races, winning the Interior Invitational in Fairbanks by 31 seconds and the Adidas/Lynx XC Invitational at Kincaid Park by 26 seconds.
His breakout performance, though, came at the Stanford Invitational in California, where he finished 18th out of 130 and beat many Division I runners.
Friess liked how Kiplagat responded to his first race in the Lower 48 against a tough field. He stayed strong and didn’t get pushed around by the big boys.
“He’s the real deal,” Friess said.
Kiplagat is still adjusting to the comforts of the American lifestyle. Amenities we take for granted, like electricity and plumbing, are absent from everyday life in Kapsabet.
The rural village is a six-hour drive from the capitol city of Nairobi and features flat countryside and miles of dirt roads. There are no telephones, refrigerators and washing machines.
So you could imagine his surprise when he visited a laundry mat for the first time. He and two teammates handled laundry service for the Great Alaska Shootout, washing and folding basketball uniforms.
Running the spin cycle was very foreign to him.
“In the village … you have to go to the river where the water is flowing,” Kiplagat said.
It’s almost impossible for teammates to relate to that poor lifestyle, just as it’s hard for Kiplagat to imagine growing up here with iPods, Playstations and MTV.
Kiplagat’s rural background has earned him a new nickname on the team. “We kind of joke about David being “Country” and Cornelious being “City,” Friess said.
Coming from a major metropolis of some 3 million people, Sigei is much more accustomed to city life. He speaks better English than Kiplagat, and he enjoys surfing the Internet and watching DVDs.
Sigei is originally from a small village but moved to the big city for high school. There, Sigei discovered the Internet.
“I got some exposure (to) the real world,” he said.
But even with his modern background, Sigei is still foreign to something as simple as snow. He’s never seen any.
“I’ve been able to see some on the mountains,” he said. “I’m excited to see it (up close).”
In the end, the Kenyans are grateful for their opportunities at UAA. Friess even thinks the rest of the Seawolves could learn from them.
“The biggest thing, for both these guys, I think is their genuine appreciation for what they have and what they are doing,” Friess said. “It’s extremely refreshing.”