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Oklahoma State's Shadrack Kipchirchir runs after his American dream

COMMENTARY — Cowboy standout finished second in the 10,000 meters at the NCAA Championships. But his road to Stillwater was even longer.
by Jenni Carlson Published: July 5, 2014
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Shadrack Kipchirchir came to the United States five years ago and changed his life.

Of that, he is sure.

He earned his degree in construction engineering from Oklahoma State while running cross country and track. He opened up opportunities not available in his native Kenya, a country now torn by ethnic violence and mass killings. He made things better for the wife and the children that he will one day have.

So, several months ago, he decided that he had to thank the country that gave him these gifts — he enlisted in the U.S. Army.

“This is my way to do something in return for everything I’ve been given,” Shadrack told Cowboy coach Dave Smith. “I never intended to just take and not give back. I wanted to find a way to give back.

“This is my way.”

But now, he might repay the U.S. in another way. After a most unlikely journey that led him from the farmland of Kenya to the hills of Kentucky to the plains of Oklahoma, he might wear the red, white and blue in the Olympics.

On this weekend that Americans celebrate independence and all of its glorious trappings — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — Shadrack Kipchirchir is running after his American dream.

***

Shadrack’s journey to the United States began with Smith’s journey to Kenya.

It was 2005, and Smith had just finished his third year as an OSU assistant. In another year, he’d be named the head coach. He made a two-week trip to Kenya not only to recruit the distance-running hotbed but also to learn more about the country and the culture. He figured if he was going to bring Kenyans to Stillwater, he needed some understanding of their homeland.

He contacted Mike Boit, an acquaintance who was a professor in Kenya. Boit also happened to be an Olympic medalist, having won bronze in the 800 meters in 1972.

“First of all, I’m picking you up at the airport,” Boit told Smith. “I’m putting you in a hotel that I trust, and you’re not leaving that hotel until I come get you the next day.”

For a week, Boit was Smith’s tour guide, taking him to running camps and introducing him to coaches and runners.

But the second half of the trip, Boit couldn’t accompany Smith, so the professor set up the coach with a young Kenyan man named Titus Tirop. For the next week, Smith and his guide went everywhere together. Titus was waiting outside Smith’s hotel door in the mornings and walked him back to the door in the evenings.

“I’ll take care of myself today,” Smith told him a couple times. “You go home and rest and enjoy your family.”

“No, no, no,” Titus replied. “If you’re going to be in town, I’m going to be with you. I’m going to look out for you.”

The two men became close, and before Smith left the country, Titus asked if the coach could help him come to the United States. Titus had run some, and while he was too old for Division I, the level of competition wasn’t a concern. He was most interested in getting an American education.

Smith promised to check around when he returned to the States.

Not long after, Titus heard from Lindenwood University, an NAIA college in St. Charles, Mo. He ran there, then started coaching in Kentucky.

Titus got to know some of the cross country and track coaches at Western Kentucky, and when his younger brother wanted to follow in his footsteps and come to the States, Titus asked if they might have a spot.

One problem: Shadrack Kipchirchir had never run before.

***

Shadrack was the middle child of John and Rose Tirop’s nine kids. Four older. Four younger.

Some have different last names — Smith calls it a Kenya thing — but all of them are full siblings.

They lived on an acreage outside Eldoret, a city of nearly 300,000 that is the country’s fastest growing town. They raised and grew all of their food. If they drank milk, it was from their cows. If they ate eggs, they were from their chickens.

They weren’t rich, but they weren’t dirt poor either. That meant Shadrack was able to play soccer and consider going to college.

But when his brother went to the U.S. to run, it opened another avenue.

Thing was, Shadrack had never run competitively. He was like most Kenyan kids, walking or running everywhere he went. That was the only mode of transportation. No cars. No bikes. If he was going somewhere, he was getting there on foot.

Shadrack made the three-mile journey to school and back every day on foot. And most days, he went home for lunch, then back to school.

Add it all up, and his daily mileage was 12 miles or more.

Still, when Shadrack and Titus started talking to Western Kentucky, the brothers were selling more than the coaches were recruiting.

“I have potential to run,” Shadrack told them.

And they believed it.

“That’s why I appreciate them so much,” Shadrack said. “It was a real trust.”

Truth be told, this is a common story in college distance running — schools take chances on Kenyan guys who may or may not have run competitively. It’s not only because the country has a great track record of producing world-class distance runners but also because of young people who are always on their feet.

“So their bodies are ready to be trained,” said Smith, the OSU coach. “They’re ready to run at this level because they’ve been on their feet.”

That was definitely the case with Shadrack. In his second year at Western Kentucky, he became an All-American in cross country. He finished 27th at the national meet.

The team that won the national title that day: OSU.

Shadrack and the Cowboys were soon to cross paths again.

***

One summer day in 2011, Smith’s phone rang and a familiar but forgotten voice was on the other end.

It was Titus Tirop.

Even though the two men had lost contact over the years, Titus wanted to tell Smith that his younger brother Shadrack was leaving Western Kentucky and looking to transfer. Shadrack was majoring in construction engineering, and he wanted a bigger program than Western Kentucky could offer.

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by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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