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The unlikely coach of Kenya's top runners

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The unlikely coach of Kenya's top runners
Kenyan runners return to training in the town of Iten in Kenya. (AP/Ben Curtis)

Potbellied and unassuming, 63-year-old Colm O’Connell doesn’t look like the kind of guy who trains world class athletes. But among those under his tutelage is Kenyan David Rudisha, the reigning world champion of the 800-meter race and presumed gold medalist in the London Olympics. In addition to not looking the part, O’Connell eschews new-fangled techniques like measuring runners’ lactate threshold and maximum oxygen consumption. His is a more intuitive technique. Oh, and did I mention he’s an Irish priest?

In a profile for the August edition of Outside Magazine, London-based writer Ed Caesar chronicles how O’Connell became “the most successful running coach in history” and something of a celebrity in Iten, the Kenyan village that produces many of the country’s top athletes. Having lived in Iten for decades, the priest knows the complexities of dealing with vulnerable young people looking for a way out of extreme poverty.

Of the priest’s unorthodox style, Caesar writes:

He will never coach a school-age pupil who isn’t in school full time. He won’t coach more than four or five professionals at a time, and he’ll only coach would-be pros who came through his junior program. And he — not Athletics Kenya nor the dozens of European and American managers who have flooded into the Rift Valley looking to sign talent and make money on lucrative races — will decide his athletes’ event schedules.

Unlike other coaches, O’Connell receives no payment for his work. According to Caesar, he’s unlikely to cheer on David Rudisha in London; he relies on the generosity of others when he needs to travel.

Cesar joins us Wednesday on Worldview

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