Linet Chepkwemoi Masai of Kenya on the way to win the Women's JUNIOR race (© Getty Images)
Kenya struck back in their annual battle for cross country supremacy against old foes Ethiopia on home soil in Mombasa but arguably the biggest surprise was the gold medal winning performance of Linet Chepkwemoi Masai in the junior women’s race, the very first contest of the 35th IAAF World Cross Country Championships (24 March).
Running in Mombasa under her official name of Linet Chepkwemoi Barasa (born 5 December 1989) but better known as Linet Chepkwemoi Masai - the version which since her triumph she asked to be known by in the future - is the sister of 2005 African Junior 5000m and 10,000 champion Moses Masai. She stunned the opposition on her international debut to lead home a Kenyan clean sweep to the delight of the home supporters.
On the advice of her brother
But just who is the new World Junior Cross Country champion?
Masai, 17, flirted with athletics at school but not to a high level but inspired by her brother, Moses, she started training more seriously in February last year and she first came to the attention of her agent and coach Ricky Simms after Moses spoke about her ability in the summer.
Impressed by Moses’ words Simms sent her a track suit and training shoes and she was invited to join the PACE Sports Management training group after winning a junior cross country race at Chepkoilel University in October.
The big challenge
At the camp Masai was then given the chance to train alongside the likes of former World Junior Cross Country champions Vivian Cheruiyot and Sally Barsosio, sub two-minute 800m runner Faith Macharia, Naomi Mugo, a 3:58 1500m performer, and fellow junior Veronica Nyaruai Wanjiru at Kaptagat.
The first sign that the extra training was paying dividends came when she finished seventh in an Athletics Kenya race in Kericho – after starting way too quickly in the first half of the race – and then placed third in the Uasin Gishu District Championships.
But her first major breakthrough came when finishing fourth at the World Cross trials on 24 February in Nairobi, so securing her place in the Kenyan team for Mombasa.
Simms explained making the championships was a major feat, particularly with so little training background.
“To get her on to the Kenyan team was the big challenge,” he insisted. “She did very well to finish fourth at the trials, although we had heard Linet was pushing the senior runners hard in the one hour training runs.”
However, although Masai was a contender, the clear favourite was her countrywoman and defending World Cross Country champion Pauline Korikwiang. The runner-up from the previous two years Veronica Nyaruai Wanjiru, Masai’s room-mate and good friend in the training camp, was also well fancied.
But running in savage heat and temperatures in the high 30s Masai kept her head to show a maturity beyond her years to win.
Korikwiang, the champion in Fukuoka, miscalculated the number of laps along with Ethiopian duo Genzebe Dibaba and Emebt Etea who kicked for what they thought was the finish at the end of the second of three laps. With the trio effectively out of the competition Masai, who was fourth at the bell, kicked on to destroy the opposition to win by seven seconds and lead home a Kenyan clean medal sweep from Mercy Kosgei with Wanjiru, third.
Simms added of Masai’s gold medal winning performance: “She hydrated well before the race and was very aware there was still one lap to go when some of the others sprinted too early. Her plan was to attack hard in the last kilometre, as she has not yet developed a finishing kick. She was affected by the heat and it took her a long time to recover - she was unable to attend the winner’s press conference - hopefully she will get the chance again in the future.”
No relation to Edith
From the Mt Elgon region in the Western province Masai is from the same tribe as three-time World short course cross country champion Edith Masai (no relation). She is eligible to defend her World cross country title in Edinburgh next year but her next focus will be the track and Simms is keeping an open mind on which event she is best suited.
“Moses, her brother, has a long very graceful stride that eats up the ground but he does not have a great turn of speed,” he added. “I would say she would be more of a 5000m runner than a 1500m but it is too early to say how good she will be and which distance will be her best. There is no need to rush her progression – we would like her to develop gradually over the next ten years.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF