Friday, March 1, 2024

‘Running saved me’: Long-distance runner Paul Chelimo’s path from Kenya to the U.S. Army to the Olympic podium

Long-distance runner Paul Chelimo became Team USA’s first two-time Olympic medalist in the 5,000-meter event last month in Tokyo. But while Chelimo calls earning the medal an “honor,” the 30-year-old admits the Games were “very intense” and “took a lot out of” him. Chelimo’s exhaustion was evident when he collapsed through the end line to finish just a fraction of a second ahead of Kenya’s Nicholas Kipkorir Kimeli.

The 40th annual New Balance Fifth Avenue Mile will be Chelimo’s biggest step toward returning to form while also preserving his body. Chelimo will compete against 13 Tokyo Olympians, two Olympic medalists and two past event champions in the race slated for Sept. 12 in New York. 

“I can’t think of any road race in the world bigger than the Fifth Avenue Mile,” said Chelimo, who’ll be competing in first one-mile race since 2018. “It’s going to be on the weekend, it’s always live on the TV, it’s always in New York City — and I know a lot of people in New York love running. So, that’s where I want to be at this time. It should be fun being a part of it and it’s hopefully not the last one. 

“The goal is I hope I come back with a win.” 

Chelimo has two motivating factors for the race. The first, meeting increasingly-high expectations from his fans and sponsors, has been around since he began running professionally. The second, however, is two years old and has given him a “different drive.” 

That second motivating factor is Arianna Chebet Chelimo, Chelimo’s first child. 

“When I go out there, I grind because she’s got to live a better life,” Chelimo said. “She’s got to have the best life.” 

Chelimo wants his daughter to have the best life largely because his own — prior to moving from Kenya to the U.S. to run collegiately in 2010 — was far from it. 

In the 11 years since Chelimo’s nearly 10,000-mile journey from his hometown of Itan, Kenya to the U.S., he’s adopted the saying “go hard or suffer the rest of your life.” The words are ubiquitous across Chelimo’s social media. Chelimo’s mother instilled that “go hard” way of life into him as a child, and it’s helped build him into the two-time Olympic medalist the world knows today. 

“You always have to work hard for the best things,” Chelimo said. “And me coming to the U.S., it was really life-changing, and that’s why I believe in ‘go hard or suffer the rest of your life.’ The United States is a land of opportunities and this is a place where, if you work really hard, everything is going to fall in place.” 

“I just have to go hard,” he added. “That’s what I go with. The way I grew up, the only way I could get out of poverty and a tough life is just with my running. Running saved me.” 

Running in the U.S. may have saved Chelimo, but he handsomely repaid the favor to his new country. Chelimo enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2014 and served as a water-treatment specialist. He gained U.S. citizenship just ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics for his service. 

The Army — including its Word Class Athlete Program, which trains Olympic hopefuls such as Chelimo — gave him a new mentality. A more respectful, humble, resilient and tough mentality.

It’s a mentality he carries into every race. 

“You got to be resilient, you got to be tough,” Chelimo said. “And they teach you that, when you go to war, be ready to die for your country. So, that’s the same way I feel when I wear the United States singlet. I feel like I’m representing the military in a different type of way.” 

Chelimo’s next big goal requires him to represent Team USA again. He’s hoping to earn gold — at age 38 — in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. Belief, Chelimo says, is what he’s relying on to reach that goal. 

Belief has also gotten Chelimo to thrive after moving across the ocean, serving his country, succeeding at the Olympic level and providing for his daughter. As long as Chelimo goes hard, he’s confident that trend will continue. 

“If I win gold in the United States, in L.A., that’s really, really [bigger] than winning gold in any other type of Olympics,” Chelimo said. “…That would be a dream come true.”

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