What you need to know:
- Chelimo, Jebet and Kirwa, all born in Kenya, are poster girls of Bahraini athletics having changed nationality, but their hearts are very much still in Kenya where they live
- Chelimo is married to Joash Mutai, also an athlete, and the couple have a seven-year-old daughter Faith Cherop.
- Her prayer now is that the coronavirus is contained soon to allow for a regular season next year.
A drive of approximately 25 minutes along the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Highway from downtown Manama brings you to Riffa, home of the Bahrain Athletics Federation.
The recently completed complex houses the federation’s offices, athletes’ hostels, meeting rooms and gym, with plans complete to construct a training track.
A short distance from the complex is the Bahrain National Stadium, an ultra-modern edifice that’s home to the Bahraini national football team.
Images of star Bahraini athletes are mounted on the wall in the Bahrain Athletics Federation offices, and as you make your way up the well-decorated staircase, a blown-up tweet mounted on hardboard catches your eye.
It’s a message from the association’s president His Highness Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa congratulating Rose Chelimo for winning gold for Bahrain in the marathon at the 2017 World Championships in London.
Further images celebrate Bahraini medalists at various global competitions.
Besides Chelimo, former world steeplechase record holder Ruth Jebet and Olympic marathon silver medalist Eunice Kirwa are celebrated on the “wall of fame.”
Yes, Chelimo, Jebet and Kirwa, all born in Kenya, are the poster girls of Bahraini athletics having changed nationality to run for the Gulf state.
But their hearts, and lives, are very much still in Kenya where they live, train and have their families. Chelimo switched Kenya’s black, red and green for Bahrain’s maroon and white in 2015, and has no regrets!
She, along with the growing number of former Kenyans in the Bahraini set-up, are well taken care of with some enlisted in the Bahraini military and others on a monthly salary for bringing glory to the Gulf nation.
They also get a steady supply of training gear from the federation, quite unlike Kenya where individual athletes fend for themselves. Like many other elites, Chelimo’s programme for 2020 was dealt a major blow by the coronavirus pandemic, forcing her to stay put at her Kapsabet, Nandi County birthplace where we caught up with her.
She had lined up the Boston Marathon as one of her main races this season, but the April race was cancelled due to the virus.
We caught up with her in Kapsabet where she explained her disappointment at the cancellation.
“I was almost through with my programme when the race was cancelled and what made me feel bad is that I had gone for the 35km long run only to get information that the race had been cancelled,” she said.
She had high hopes this year after emerging second at last year’s World Championships in Doha, losing to Kenya’s Ruth Chepgn’etich.
Chelimo also harboured dreams of competing at the Tokyo Olympics this year but, again, the Games were shelved by the pandemic.
“After Boston Marathon was cancelled, I had high hopes of participating in the Olympics Games but again the event was cancelled leaving me with no option but to stay at home. It’s now a year since I participated in the last race and we have to remain strong and wait for things to normalise,” said Chelimo.
In 2017, she floored a strong field that included two-time champion, Kenya’s Edna Kiplagat, to win gold at the London World Championships.
“It was my first World Championships event and I had done good preparations ahead of the race though I didn’t expect to win due to a strong field of athletes from other countries,” she recalled.
“I had a chat with Edna before that race and she was encouraging me that anyone could carry the day and that is what motivated me to go for the top prize and I’m happy I won,” she added.
She hails Edna as one of the greatest athlete she has ever met adding that the upcoming young athletes should emulate her because of her longevity and success. “I used to see Edna competing while I was in school and I didn’t know that we would meet and run in the same race,” she said.
Chelimo explains that changing nationality was a tough call, but is quick to add it’s a decision she doesn’t regret.
“Kenya has good athletes and it’s always competitive and that was the reason I shifted, among many other reasons. This has given me a chance to always train and achieve my goals.
“Bahrainis appreciate their athletes and that is why we are always doing well,” said Chelimo, who is coached by Amos Korir.
She won the 2016 Seoul Marathon in two hours, 24 minutes and 14 seconds in her debut over the distance.
In 2016, she finished eighth at the Rio Olympics Games (2:27:36) and this gave her more courage to compete more in the distance.
In 2017, she was named in an elite field of Boston Marathon and here she knew that it was her perfect time to showcase her talent. And true to her expectations, she managed second place (2:22:51) behind her role model Edna Kiplagat (2:21:52).
In 2018, she represented Bahrain at the Asian Games, winning gold. And at last year’s World Championships in Doha, as defending champion, she managed silver after missing her water bottle at 35km.
“Despite the tough weather we were competing in which was very hot, my water point was moved forward and I was the last to pick water in the leading group where I was dropped and that’s where I settled for silver medal,” she added.
Chelimo started running while in Kipkimba Primary School after transferring there from Kipchamo Primary School.
Both schools are in Nandi County where she used to compete in the 5,000 metres up to district level in school games.
She later joined Kaplelmet Secondary School in Nandi County and this helped her shape her career as she used to run to school every day.
She ventured into cross country races and competed up to the provincials, attributing her athletics prowess to her mother, Veronica Cheruto who was also an athlete in her day.
It was in 2009 that Chelimo started training seriously with her first stop being Kapsabet where she would join other athletes in training.
But life was not easy and she had to retreat to her home.
“I packed my bags and headed to Kapsabet where I knew athletes were many and joined them in training but life was tough and with lack of facilities, I went back home to re-strategise,” she recollects.
While at home, she would feature in all local races, always finishing on the podium. In 2010, she competed in the Safaricom Okoa Jahazi 10km road race in Nyamira, part of the Safaricom Gusii Golden Series races, where she finished second in 32 minutes, 52.44 seconds behind race winner Georgina Rono (32:04.92).
It was at this race where a lady by the name Rebecca, who was also an athlete, saw her and took her contacts, hooking her up with a manager in France who gave her an opportunity to compete in Europe for the first time in September 2010.
She stayed in France for two months and competed in various races, always finishing in the top three.
“When I was in France, I trained in good facilities which was another motivation and I certainly knew that my career had taken a new dimension because I had not seen such things in my life,” she recalls.
Chelimo is married to Joash Mutai, also an athlete, and the couple have a seven-year-old daughter Faith Cherop.
Her prayer now is that the coronavirus is contained soon to allow for a regular season next year.
Elias Makori contributed to this article. emakori@ke,nationmedia.com