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.
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.
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.