Kenya Under-20 youth ready to take on the world

Emmanuel Wanyonyi

Kenya's Emmanuel Wanyonyi holds the trophy after winning the men's 800m during the 2023 Prefontaine Classic and Wanda Diamond League final at Hayward Field on September 17, 2023 in Eugene, Oregon. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

After a two-day selection process that ended on Friday at the Nyayo National Stadium, Kenya has named a team of 19 athletes that will compete at the 2024 World Athletics Under-20 Championships with the sole aim of reclaiming the overall title that the country lost at the 2022 edition of the championships.

Kenya won the overall title in 2021 when Nairobi hosted the delayed 2020 World Athletics Under-20 Championships behind closed doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But at the 2022 edition of the World Youth Championships in Cali, Colombia, Kenya finished fourth overall with 10 medals (three gold, three silver and four bronze) behind USA, Jamaica and Ethiopia.

On Friday, June 28, Kenya named a strong team of 19, including two female runners who will compete in two different races. However, there are no sprinters or field athletes in the team that will compete in Lima, Peru from August 27-31.

The team is littered with medallists from World and African championships at senior and junior level.

They include 2023 World U20 cross country champion Ismael Kipkurui, who will compete in the men's 5,000m, Sarah Moraa, fresh from winning the African 800m title, and African 3,000m steeplechase silver medallist Edmond Serem.

Also in the mix are Commonwealth Youth 800m champion Kelvin Kimutai and Africa U20 race walk bronze medallist Stephen Ndangiri. Ndagiri will be looking to emulate his training partner Heristone Wanyonyi, who won the 2021 World U20 crown in Nairobi.

The highlight of the trials were the performances of Form Three pupils from Nakuru's Tiloa Mixed Secondary School, Mercy Chepkemoi and Sheila Jebet, who will be competing in two different races.

Chepkemoi and Jebet will be hoping to emulate their role model, world 5,000m and 1,500m champion Faith Kipyegon, when they compete in Peru.

Chepkemoi easily won the 3,000m and 5,000m finals in nine minutes, 10.95 seconds and 15:55.23 respectively, while Jebet claimed the 1,500m honours in 4:19.38 before finishing second to Chepkemoi in the 5,000m in 15:55.26.

Chepkemoi, who finished sixth in the 5,000m at the just-concluded African Athletics Championships in Cameroon and 12th at the World Athletics Cross Country Championships in Serbia in March, said she was ready for the task ahead.

"Endurance has helped me do well here, but I need to improve my speed," Chepkemoi said on Friday.

"If (Faith) Kipyegon can do it, why can't I?" she asked.

Jebet, who trains in Iten, Elgeyo Marakwet, finished fourth at the World Athletics Cross Country Championships in Serbia.

"We have a big task ahead of us and competing in both the 1,500m and 5,000m requires speed and stamina at the same time. I will work on my finishing kick so that on the day of the competition in Lima I will be in good shape to go for the big prize," said Jebet. She will be paired with Phanuel Koech in the 1,500m.

Athletics Kenya (AK) brought forward the trials after World Athletics intervened. Kenya had planned to hold the trials from 18-19 July at the same venue.

AK's Director of Youth and Development, Barnaba Korir, said that World Athletics' directive to its member federations that all countries must submit their entries with athletes' passports attached by June 30 had excluded Kenya's top juniors from the trials. Some of the juniors are still processing their Kenyan passports.

"There was nothing we could do. It would have been a futile exercise to have them at the trials without Kenyan passports. However, most of our athletes in the middle and distance events have the document," said Korir.

Most of the U-20 camps around the country do not have coaches who specialise in sprints and field events, which cost the sprinters a chance at the trials.

"Most of the local training camps have middle and distance coaches who graduate these sprinters to middle-distance events due to lack of facilities," said Eliud Wambua, a member of AK's youth and development committee. 

Despite the heartbreak of failing to meet the Paris Olympic qualifying time of 1:59.30, Sarah Moraa, who won in 2:00.01, is hoping to reclaim the 800m title that Kenya last won in 2014 through Margaret Nyairera.

Kimutai has vowed to uphold the country's 800m honour in Peru after winning his event at the trials in 1:46.77. Emmanuel Wanyonyi, who won in Colombia in 2022, has made the transition to the senior level.

"My target in Lima is to win gold, nothing less," said the Form Four pupil at Kosirai Secondary School in Nandi County.