ITEN, Kenya (Reuters) - When Brother Colm O’Connell left Ireland in 1976 to teach geography in Kenya, he had no athletics experience whatsoever.
“I’d done a bit of soccer coaching but I knew nothing about running,” the genial, ruddy-faced Irishman said in the lilt of his hometown Cork.
He learned quickly. Three decades later, O’Connell is one of the world’s most successful coaches and his St. Patrick’s School, in the western highland village of Iten, has an unrivalled history of producing Kenyan world-beaters.
Dozens of trees planted round St. Patrick’s, a $500-a-year school, honor illustrious alumni who have set world records or won at the Olympics, Commonwealth Games or world championships.
O’Connell has trained around 20 of those champions, including Peter Rono, Wilson Kipketer and Sally Barsosio, whose successes have helped earn Kenya its international fame for middle- and long-distance running.
“There are very few schools that could compare to it in producing world-beating athletes,” O’Connell told Reuters.
If any, say experts.
O’Connell and other coaches in the area face a new challenge in this Olympic year — helping their runners to recover from the post-election violence that shook Kenya for two months after Christmas and killed more than 1,000 people.
One of the worst-affected areas was Kenya’s running heartland, around Eldoret town in the Rift Valley, including Iten. Burned-out homes litter the road out of Eldoret and a building housing some athletes in Iten was destroyed by a mob.
Lucas Sang, a 1988 Olympics 4x400 relay finalist, was killed in Eldoret.
O’Connell said that for several weeks many athletes, who were visiting family over Christmas, could not return to their training camps. Those who did found roads and paths ruled by machete-wielding mobs, too dangerous to run along.
“It is only in the last month or so, certainly since the peace agreement was signed that the athletes have tried to put all that behind them and focus on running again,” he said.
“The weeks they missed in training may impact down the line a bit. We will see that very soon when they participate in the world cross-country in Edinburgh at the end of this month.”
Further ahead, O’Connell believes it might even affect the Kenyans’ prospects at the Beijing Olympics in August.
“Most middle- and long-distance runners use cross-country as a foundation, as a launching pad to their track season. Now if that has been seriously interrupted, then of course it will impact on performances in Beijing.”
“For the ones who are experienced and have run in major championships before, it won’t impact so much because they know how to handle it. But for new and upcoming talent, it may be a bit more difficult.”
The Irishman, who is a member of the Catholic order Brothers of St. Patrick, is modest about his techniques and influence, saying he has relied on instinct and learning from the athletes around him, rather than books or courses.
“The reservoir of talent around here is unbelievable.”
He attributes the success of Kenya’s Rift Valley runners to factors including the altitude — Iten stands at 2,300 meters — the nation’s post-independence drive to excel in sport and the athletes’ good diets and spartan backgrounds.
“You won’t find any ice-cream or chocolate in Iten.”
Back in 1976, O’Connell was thrown into the deep end by Peter Foster, brother of British runner Brendan Foster, who persuaded him to start coaching the boys at the school.
Wisely, he never ran himself: “You’d be crazy to run with Kenyans!”
Though many of his students have earned fortunes on the circuit, O’Connell keeps a modest life, lives next door to the athletes he is training — he currently has five seniors under his wing — and generally watches their successes on television.
He will be doing that again in August, and is initially coy on predictions.
“It is very difficult to predict Olympics. It seems to be different from other major championships. You have guys who pop out of nowhere,” he said.
“There are probably a couple of people who are certainly going to stake a claim... People like Janeth Jepkosgei (800 meters world champion), who is a product of my own system here, having been with me for four or five years.”
He also tipped world marathon champions Luke Kibet and Catherine Ndereba.
“But the very fact you are hesitant to name many names shows the depth of talent in Kenya. Even world beaters are not sure of their place.”
Editing by Clare Fallon