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This humble Irish missionary was just recognized as the world’s greatest coach

In presenting the award to Brother Colm O'Connell, World Athletics honoured the roots of Kenyan running

Along with the honours bestowed on Eliud Kipchoge and Dalilah Muhammad as Male and Female Athletes of the Year in Monaco over the weekend, the man known as the godfather of Kenyan running was presented with the Coaching Achievement award. But back in 1975, had Brother Colm O’Connell, now 71, elected to be sent to Los Angeles instead of to teach at St. Patrick High School in Iten, Kenya might not have appeared on the world running map until much later.

“In 1975, there was the option for brothers to go to Los Angeles to teach,” O’Connell explained in a media interview earlier this year, “I don’t think America really attracted me. I wanted a place, maybe, that had a little bit more challenge, a bit more adventure… People said, ‘California would have been your dream.’ But now of course, Kenya has become my dream.” O’Connell retired from teaching in 1994, but continued to live in a small house on the school’s property in Iten, and eventually he coached girls as well as boys.

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Presenting the award was one of O’Connell’s best athletes, three-time world champion and former 800m world record-holder Wilson Kipketer. Some of the other athletes O’Connell coached have included 1988 Olympic 1,500m champion Peter Rono, and 1992 Olympic 3,000m steeplechase champion Matthew Birir, multi-Olympic, world champion and world record-holder in the 800m, David Rudisha (though Rudisha and O’Connell parted company in 2016) and many others. One of his more recent accomplishments is coaching Rhonex Kipruto to a bronze medal in the 10,000m in Doha.

“There is no secret,” O’Connell goes on, in response to a question about how he managed to produce so many champions. “People always think, when something happens in kind of a recurring fashion… and they will generally all tell you, it’s got to do with the ability to nurture talent, the ability to motivate people, encourage people, have a passion for what you do, and do the hard work, and to realize the discipline required if you want to be among the best.”

O’Connell immersed himself in the sport, and says his athletes taught him how to coach. He says that if he had come into it fully trained and with a lot of theoretical knowledge, he wouldn’t have been as successful as he was. In light of the recent stories of emotional abuse and a winning-at-any-cost culture revealed by former Nike Oregon Project athlete Mary CainO’Connell’s words sound prescient: “When a young athlete comes to me, the impulse is always… to try to impose what you know about the sport, saying yes I know exactly what to do to make you a success. For me, I reverse the process. I say, what is the young athlete bringing to me? … spend more time concentrating on them, and on what they bring to you, rather than on what you have to offer them.”

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O’Connell, who was raised in Ireland’s County Cork, says there were some sports programs in place at the school when he arrived, and that it was clear to him there were many talented athletes in the area. He wanted to give the boys something to enrich their lives outside of the classroom. He says most of the competitions they entered in the early years were local, and it wasn’t until much later that they began to excel on the world scene (and he realized just how great their talent was).

In a media interview after Saturday’s event, O’Connell said “Having superstars can always be seen as one of your highlights, but for me the highlight was just working with young people, and I still work with young people.”