The Catholic Missionary and the Masai Runner

By de Zoete, Jim | The Spectator, July 19, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Catholic Missionary and the Masai Runner


de Zoete, Jim, The Spectator


The remarkable story of the missionary and the Masai running champion

In 2012, David Rudisha, a Masai warrior from Kenya, ran what many say was the greatest race in the history of the Olympics. He led the 800m final from the front and smashed his own world record, becoming the first man ever to run under 1.41. In the words of Seb Coe, 'Bolt was good, Rudisha was magnificent.' In interviews after the race he thanked one man above all others for his success: an Irish Catholic missionary named Brother Colm O'Connell -- a man with no official athletics training who had nonetheless been David's coach since he first began to run. And if David wins another gold at the Commonwealth Games next week, he'll have Colm to thank again.

Brother Colm arrived in Kenya from Ireland as a missionary in 1976, more than ten years before David Rudisha was born. Colm had the idea that he might teach geography at St Patrick's, a boys' school at the edge of the Rift Valley. He thought he'd stay three years. Early on, he was asked to lend a hand on the running track, and discovered a passion that has lasted to this day. For Colm, it was 'a way of getting to know the kids outside the classrooms' and 'anything I learnt, I learnt from them in those early days'.

What happened next is now the stuff of legend in Kenya. Under Colm's guidance, more than 20 Olympic and World Championship medal winners would emerge from this tiny school. The exact number is unclear; as Colm says, 'I don't like to count them.'

When I first met Colm in 2004, I was struck by his situation. By now he was the last of the Irish Patrician Brothers left in the school, and he seemed to be at a crossroads. He was no longer coaching the school athletics team, but continued to run camps for youngsters in the holidays. Usually, when he trained boys and girls, they would leave his camp by the age of 18 and go off to other professional coaches for their senior training, but that year he took on his first professional senior athletes.

We returned in 2005 with the idea of making a film, starting out by documenting one of Colm's holiday training camps. What neither Ed Sunderland, my fellow producer, nor I could foresee on that first day, when 50 teenagers came through the school gates, was that a painfully shy, very tall Masai boy would turn out to be one of the greatest athletes in the world. Of course, neither could Colm. …

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