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P I T T S B U R G H, P E N N.
It’s a cold and muddy morning, but just a few kilometers into the men’s 10k, Gidieon Kimutai is feeling good.
The NCAA Division II Cross Country National Championships began with a shaky start at Schenley Park. A collision in the initial 100 meters means the runners have to be called back. Cramped lines still result in several taking a tumble at the second start.
He feels nervous at the outset, knowing the caliber of competition he’s facing. But now Kimutai sees that he’s keeping pace with the top runners.
“This is a good position for me to try to maintain,” the Missouri Southern freshman thinks to himself.
He stays among the lead pack throughout the race. At 5.8k and again at 7.8, he finds himself in third place. He keeps pushing himself forward.
He crosses the finish line in fourth place, earning All-American honors in the process.
It’s an impressive finish for Kimutai, who recently wrapped up his freshman year as a member of the cross country team at Missouri Southern.
But to put his achievement in perspective, maybe it’s better to go back to his official starting line as a runner. Other than a little soccer and rugby played for fun, pursuing athletic greatness was not something he had seriously considered.
Life, though, has a way of changing in an instant.
M A R C H 3, 2 0 1 5
E L D O R E T, K E N YA
Kimutai is home after finishing high school. He’s taken his graduation exams and is now in the midst of the two-month wait to find out the results.
College is in the future for the 19-year-old, who hopes to study electrical engineering and dreams of one day traveling to the United States. Today, though, there’s farm work his father has asked him to do – corn stalks need to be run through a feed processing machine.
He puts the stalks into the machine, which grinds them down to be used as food for the cows. A larger stalk becomes stuck in the opening and he reaches with his right hand to try to dislodge it.
The stalk gives way and is jerked into the grinding apparatus, taking his hand along with it.
There’s an explosion of pain as his hand is crushed within the gears.
By the time he reaches the hospital, doctors inform him there’s nothing they can do.
His hand needs to be amputated.
‘ N O T H I N G I S I M P O S S I B L E ’
What immediately comes through in conversation with Kimutai is his humble nature. He’s quick to praise his teammates on the university’s cross country program, which collectively placed 11th during the national championships.
“I believe in teamwork,” he says. “They say when you want to go fast, you go alone. When you want to go far, you go with a pack.”
His path to becoming a runner able to keep pace with national contenders began as a more solitary journey, however. He was still in the hospital in Kenya when he was visited by his uncle.
“He came to me and told me, ‘Hey, everything is not lost,’” says Kimutai. “He’s interested in sports and used to run in high school. He said, ‘I want you to start training (as a runner) because you could be on the Paralympic team.’ I told him I’d think about it.”
In the months that followed, Kimutai focused on rehabilitation and learning to complete basic tasks that he had once taken for granted – such as writing, typing and driving – with just his left hand.
But the idea of training as a runner never left his mind.
“I knew I had the talent, but I hadn’t taken it into my heart to start running,” he says. “After thinking about it for a while, I said OK.”
His uncle purchased a pair or running shoes and other gear for him, and Kimutai began the process of training himself.
“I started gradually after I had fully recovered,” he says. “I started by waking up every morning and going for a 30-minute run. I would come home and relax, then in the afternoon I would go for another 30-minute-run.
“Where I come from, there are many athletes. I got to know some of them while I was training and they invited me to come work out with them. I realized I could hang on with them and thought, ‘Wow, I might be good at this.’”
“That gave me a lot of encouragement to be positive about running. It told me nothing is impossible.”
While his uncle had initially suggested training for the Paralympics, Kimutai never made it.
He attended a meet in Kenya where he met a coach who took an interest in Kimutai’s talents as a runner. As his training progressed, the two kept in touch. The coach told him he would help him make connections to get a scholarship to come run in the United States – which is what brought him to the attention of Jamie Burnham, head distance coach for Missouri Southern’s cross country team.
“His coach sent us an email, and then I had someone take a video of Gidieon running in a race,” says Burnham. “We typically like to see runners in action. It all comes down to how fast they could run.
“It looked like Gidieon could do it.”
‘ T H I N K P O S I T I V E ’
Kimutai says he was excited to travel to the United States to attend college and to join a talented team of athletes.
“I dreamed of coming to the United States at some point, but I didn’t know it would happen this soon,” he says. “I was used to training and running alone back home, but I saw this would be a good team to work with. (The other members) help me a lot.”
After his accident, he changed his goal of becoming an electrical engineer to another area of interest – computers.
“I had a friend back home who had a small cyber café and I used to help him out,” says Kimutai.
He’s studying computer information systems at Missouri Southern, and has a student worker position with the campus Information Technology Department. He hopes to one day become a programmer.
In the meantime, he has no plans to slow down as a runner. He aspires to return to the national cross country championships for an even better finish and to pursue athletics beyond college.
The Olympics, perhaps? You never know.
“I don’t give up so easily,” he says, looking back at the course the last few years has found him on. Life may put obstacles in your path, but he’s found it’s best to take them in stride – building endurance as you continue to put one foot in front of the other.
“The best thing you can do is to start being positive,” Kimutai says. “Think positive each and every day. Don’t ever see yourself as below others.”