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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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Would Smith be interested in talking to Shadrack?

Because Titus and Shadrack went by different last names, Smith didn’t even realize the two were brothers, but after he called Western Kentucky to make sure Shadrack had been released from his scholarship, Smith quickly got him on the phone. Shadrack was already at another school on a visit.

“I really like it,” he told Smith.

Smith figured he’d never hear from Shadrack again.

But a few days later, Shadrack called back. He decided that the school he’d been visiting wasn’t for him. He wanted to make a visit to Stillwater after all.

Soon after, he was a Cowboy.

“Just a long and twisted journey,” Smith said.

It was far from over.

***

Shadrack Kipchirchir became a Cowboy contributor right away. All-conference in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track. All-American again in cross country and indoor track.

But in one of the nation’s top distance programs, he wasn’t a superstar.

In his fifth and final year of eligibility last fall, he began to think about his future. He was going to finish his degree in the spring, but what was he going to do after that?

His older brother, Nicholas, had also come to the United States to run, and after he finished, he went into the Army. He learned leadership. He gained maturity. He told Shadrack that the military was the way to go.

While the advice of older siblings isn’t gospel in Kenyan society, it carries a ton of weight. So, after considering several options, Shadrack decided to enlist.

He told Smith about his decision, and while the coach didn’t want to talk him out of it, he wanted Shadrack to think about where he might have to go and what he might have to do. There might be war. There might be danger.

“I was given an incredible opportunity,” Shadrack told Smith. “This country’s already been good to me. Everything’s already changed my life in a way that you don’t understand. The opportunities that I now have are so much different.

“This is my way to pay back.”

In October, Shadrack Kipchirchir enlisted in the Army.

In November, he helped OSU to a third-place finish at the NCAA cross country championships. He figured it would be one of the last times he ran that kind of distance competitively.

An Internet chat changed that.

***

Shadrack was on Facebook one day with a friend serving overseas in the Army. He asked whether Shadrack knew about the World Class Athlete Program. It provides training and support to military members who wanted to represent the U.S. in elite-level competitions.

Shadrack looked into the program and found out it had qualifying times, marks that he had yet to reach. Since he was sitting out the indoor track season — he’d already run four indoor seasons and exhausted his eligibility but had redshirted in cross country and outdoor track so he could run both as a fifth-year senior — he decided to focus this past winter on reaching the qualifying times for the Army’s athlete training program.

Maybe he could continue running after all.

Shooting for that goal changed everything. This past spring in outdoor track, Shadrack became a force. He went from being an extremely good college runner to one of the best in the country. He finished second in the 10,000 meters at NCAAs, behind Oregon phenom Edward Cheserek by only two seconds but ahead of the rest of the field by more than 11 seconds.

“Until this point, running was a means to an end for him,” Smith said. “He was getting an education. He was always about the education.”

Academics remained important, but for the first time, Shadrack threw himself completely into running.

Where could running take him?

How far could he go?

He decided he wanted to find out.

***

Shadrack Kipchirchir reported for basic training a couple weeks ago. He won’t be doing distance running training for several months, but he’ll be putting in plenty of miles — wearing combat boots.

Before year’s end, he’ll report to Beaverton, Ore., where he’ll start training with the World Class Athlete Program. Like every soldier-athlete in the program, Shadrack will still be an active service member and will be expected to stay current with any and all military training. But the athletic training will be among the best in the world.

Only in existence since 1997, the World Class Athlete Program has already had 55 soldier-athletes make the Olympic team.

“That’s their main goal — run for them at the Olympic level,” Shadrack said. “So, my mind is now switched. My goal now is to make the Olympics in 2016 in Rio.”

Smith, the OSU coach, believes Shadrack is already part of a small group of six or eight runners with a chance at one of three spots in the 10,000 meters.

“Right now, he doesn’t have to improve by leaps and bounds anymore,” Smith said. “If he can just keep inching forward over the next two years … he could make the U.S. Olympic team in either the 10,000 meters or the marathon. He’s definitely got that kind of potential. He’s definitely going to be in the conversation.”

Shadrack isn’t even a U.S. citizen yet, though he expects to gain citizenship in plenty of time to compete for the red, white and blue at the 2016 Games.

Would it be weird running for the U.S. instead of Kenya?

Shadrack shook his head.

“This is where I started,” he said. “All the racing … I started here.”

This runner knows he’s already come down a long road, but he’s not exhausted. He’s excited. He’s enthused. He’s ready to see what’s around the next corner and over the next hill.

“I don’t know where life is going to lead me,” he said. “Just do the best now, and the rest will take care of itself.”

He came to the United States to change his life.

Mission accomplished.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.

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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