Emmanuel Korir on why he almost gave up the track this year, losing key support and his comeback at the World Championships

Emmanuel Korir was lost in thought at the start of the 800 meter run.

The Kenyan struggled to keep the negative feelings from taking control.

It was the final of the World Championships in Oregon, another big moment in his athletics career.

It wasn’t his first major championship final, but this one felt different. The Olympic champion came from a very dark place.

“A lot was going on in my head. It was really tough,” Korir recalls.

“It was like a test in my life… people expected me to do something great after the Olympics. Something that proves I’m the only Olympic champion.”

Korir wrote his name in the history books when he stormed to victory in Tokyo, becoming the fourth Kenyan to win the 800m title at the Games.

Korir on the injury: “The fight was real”

Instead, he lost his form after his dream debut at the Olympics.

Struggling with a calf injury, he ran without sponsorship for most of the season, finding himself isolated and depressed.

“The injury … and then the people I expected to give me encouragement and support celebrated (my unhappiness),” he revealed in an interview with Olympics.com.

After such a tumultuous start to the season, it was difficult to get out on track in Oregon without tension.

In the July final, the Kenyan managed a modest first round. With about 500m to go he was chasing the leaders as he had been doing for most of the season.

Regaining his composure, he passed leader Marco Arop and showed the world what they had seen of Korir last season.

“The struggles were real,” he recalled. “The fighting spirit…expecting something at the end, even though I didn’t know what could happen.”

Now he wants to write more athletics history in 2023 and beyond: Become the fourth man to win two gold medals at world championships.


Image from 2022 Getty Images

Korir’s transition from sprinter to 800m star

Korir’s first contact with sports was on the soccer field. He loved playing on the clay courts with his buddies. But growing up in Iten, the Kenyan town known for producing world-class runners, he was naturally pushed onto the track.

His obsession with running peaked in 2011 when he started sprinting the 100m.

Korir’s sprinting carried over to St. Francis Kimuron, the same high school that David Rudisha attended. He landed in the 200m and in the relays.

He put all his energy into sprint work, but his biggest wish was to train with a renowned athletic trainer Brother Colm O’Connell who was also based in Iten.

But there was a twist. One of the most successful coaches in athletics, producing champions for over 40 years, the Irish-born coach worked only with middle and long-distance runners.

O’Connell, who at the time was working with a group that included his most successful athlete, the two-time Olympic champion and world record holder over 800 m Rudisha, convinced Korir to switch to the 400m.

“It was 2013 when Willy Tarbei and I were young athletes and that’s also where I met Rudisha and accompanied her to training during the school holidays. The 400m was really long for me, I was mostly last or second to last, but I never gave up,” he said.

“One day Rudisha told me that if I tried to do something to lose weight since I was huge at the time, I could become a good 800-meter sprinter.”

But the transition from the longer sprint to the 800m took time. It was Paul Ereng, Kenya’s first 800m Olympic champion from Seoul in 1988, who switched fully to the two-lap race.

The prospect of a scholarship to the University of Texas at El Paso, where Ereng leads the track team, further convinced him the move was the right one.

A 1:46.94 run in the final of the 2016 Kenyan Championships earned him his ticket to the United States

“When I started running, it was difficult for me. I remember sometimes in training I had to do 300s, 500s and 600s and I ended up only doing a 500m. It was hard! But I never gave up.”

Olympic champion on the ups and downs of his 2022 season

“Tough” is also how Korir describes the first half of 2022.

An injury he picked up in training in February forced him to skip the hall.

The two-time Diamond League winner only made it to his first race in May at a meeting in Florida, where he finished third in the 400m.

He ran his first 800m in June and was only able to finish sixth at Montreuil. The Diamond League Circuit was a struggle too as he finished eighth in Rabat and fifth in Stockholm.

The 2017 NCAA indoor and outdoor champion chose the 400m at the Kenya Trials for the Worlds because he had the wild card for the 800m.

Korir, no stranger to busy seasons, needed to conserve his energy.

In 2017 and 2019 he missed the 800m final at the World Championships. After setting a personal best of 1:42.05 at London’s Olympic Stadium at the 2018 Müller Anniversary Games, he was struggling with back problems and injuries sustained in a car accident just outside Doha.

The 28-year-old managed to stay healthy in 2021 and sealed his ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.

Korir felt like he was on the verge of a breakthrough when he reached the 800m final, but the gold medal was “way out of reach” he thought.

“In the semifinals I climbed to the line and was lucky to make it to the final. After that race, I remember my roommate Fergusson Rotich told me, ‘This title is yours, you’re going to win this!’ He was pretty confident, I wasn’t.”

• Emmanuel Korir wins the 800m title in Kenya 2-1

The surprise Olympic champion struggled with the pressure of expectations.

“A lot of people thought maybe I never wanted to run,” he mused.

“The people I expected to give me encouragement and support celebrated and said, ‘We told you he wasn’t going to make it. It’s time for him to end this game, he’s getting old now.

“A lot was going on in my head. But I said to myself, ‘Focus yourself. Only I determine the direction of where it should go.’”

“I believed in myself and said I’m still Emmanuel. God helped me, I am an Olympic champion and now a world champion…. a lot will still happen.”

2022 a test of patience for the world champion

His second consecutive global title boosted his confidence. The 2018 African champions who hold the second fastest time ever on Kenyan soil at 44.21, which is just 0.03 seconds off the long-standing national 400m record Samson Kitur from Barcelona in 1992, is already planning how to extend his championship streak.

“This year has taught me a lot about patience. I tried using my previous tactic and it failed. But there was a race in France, I hurtled from behind in the last 150m and won. I thought I’d try it at the Worlds too, it worked in the heats, semifinals and finals. I was patient and it worked.”

“If I managed to win the World Cup, why not next year? It’s going to be tough but I believe that with the right training and good health I can do it.” – Emmanuel Korir on defending his world title in Budapest in 2023.

Now settled at Puma, Korir is relieved and happy that the difficult season is behind him. He’s looking forward to getting some fast times back.

Any comparison to Rudisha, a two-time world champion, is flattering, but he realizes that the analogy shouldn’t be stretched any further.

“I don’t train 400 meters, that’s a short distance for me. I might not even warm to it. But I’m training hard for 800. A lot of people tell me I have the speed to break the world record, but I also need stamina.

“Just running 1:41 costs a lot. When people talk about comparing Emmanuel and Rudisha, we are two different people.

“Also for the last two years it was difficult for us 800m guys to run 1:42 maybe because of the close championships so we didn’t have time to think about the world record.”

Indeed, Americans Donavan Braziers The gold medal winning time of 1:42.34 at the 2019 World Championships remains the fastest in three years.

“The world record is not easy; it takes a plan… the 800m is one of the toughest disciplines,” he admitted the sixth fastest man of all time, On top of that, he still has a long way to go to get close to Rudisha 1:40.91 Brand unbeaten for a decade.

“I think next year I would like to reach 1:41, if I can keep the form we can achieve the world record, it can be achieved, nothing is impossible. It just takes a right plan.

“We have great athletes like Krop … but next year we have the World Championships and then the Olympics are coming up.”

But it’s not just about running fast, he also wants to help and prevent others from going through what he’s done this season.

“I say to those who fight, never give up. Keep working hard, keep the passion and stay focused.

“We have a lot of good athletes who are struggling and they don’t have the right support. There are people in Kenya who survive on one meal a day. Some turn to me, but I can’t really help everyone. In the future I want to be one of those who can support or mentor athletes.”

Until then, Korir continues to focus on his fitness to be ready to fight anything that comes his way.

“A lot will still happen. I want to follow in Eliud Kipchoge’s footsteps. He really inspires us that you can do it regardless of age. There’s nothing like being from around here, you don’t deserve it, or you’re not like that.”

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