Few athletes in global athletics can quite boast the combination of sheer success and zest for living like Faith Kipyegon.
With her naturally vivacious personality coupled with her outstanding competitive record, the world and Olympic 1500m champion appears to have it made.
And after giving birth to her first child, daughter Alyn, in June last year, Kipyegon’s personal life appears as on track as her professional world. Yet after 21 months away from the competitive arena, the 25-year-old has been forced to press the reset button on her career as she starts the build-up to the defence of her 1500m title at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.
Suffering only three defeats in 14 finals between 2016 and 2017, the diminutive Kenyan was unquestionably the world’s leading woman at 1500m during those two seasons.
However, after climaxing her 2017 season by out-slugging Dutch athlete Sifan Hassan to the 1500m IAAF Diamond League title in Brussels, Kipyegon made the firm decision she wanted to start a family with her husband, Timothy Kitum, the 2012 Olympic 800m bronze medallist.
“It was always my plan to have a baby in 2018 and take a break from the sport,” explains Kipyegon of the logical decision to do so in a non-global championship year.
Kipyegon quickly fell pregnant and opted to take a complete break from running during the entire pregnancy. “I knew this was my resting time.”
She also chose to relocate from Keringet to Eldoret, the home city of her husband, a move principally made to receive additional family support, but which would also lead to a change to her coaching set up.
With her baby in the wrong position, Kipyegon required a caesarean section but on 21 June last year welcomed Alyn to the world.
“She has changed my life a lot,” explains Kipyegon. “Her birth was a really great moment and I have enjoyed being a mum. She acts as an extra motivation for me.”
Settling in to life as a mother, she took a further seven months rest from the sport. By the time she made her return to training in January, she opted to switch coaches from Bram Som, the 2006 European 800m champion, to join Patrick Sang, the prominent coach of world marathon record-holder Eliud Kipchoge and world half marathon champion Geoffrey Kamworor.
“It made sense to join Patrick because I now live in Eldoret,” says Kipyegon, who added that Sang’s training camp is just 45 minutes away in Kaptagat. “I knew Patrick before I came here and Bram and Patrick still talk to one another about my training. To be honest, my training now is quite similar to what it was before.
“I really enjoy being with Patrick; he is a really nice person and a caring coach.”
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The training may be similar, but after taking an almost 18-month break from running, the road back to full fitness was initially a struggle for the effervescent Kipyegon.
“The first session back was 20 minutes with two minutes of running, followed by one minute walking,” she says. “It was painful, but that is life. I had to start again. I then started jogging for 30 minutes and slowly the speed returned.”
The training programme may be similar under Sang as it was under her previous coach, but by joining the Kaptagat group for training, the diminutive Kipyegon has other advantages.
In Keringet she trained solely with a pacemaker, but for her twice-weekly track sessions in Eldoret she can train alongside world-class athletes such as 2015 world steeplechase champion Hyvin Kiyeng and Commonwealth 800m champion Wycliffe Kinyamal.
Meanwhile, on her easy runs she can hook up with the powerhouse training group of Kipchoge, the 2018 IAAF Male Athlete of the Year, and Kamworor.
“It is a big motivation to run with them,” she says. “I enjoy running with the whole group and one day I look forward to becoming a marathon runner, just like them.”
Return to racing
Training alongside the Kaptagat-based group, Kipyegon does not yet, however, live out of the camp, preferring to return each night to her home in Eldoret to look after her young child, who last month celebrated her first birthday.
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Making her long-awaited return with a stunning 1500m victory in 3:59.04 at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Stanford last month, Kipyegon was elated with the performance.
“After being out for such a long time, you don’t exactly know where you are at, so it was great to test myself at the Prefontaine meeting,” says Kipyegon, whose next race will be at this weekend’s IAAF Diamond League meeting in London.
“I’m looking forward to Doha and given the late timing of the World Championships this year (following my return from pregnancy), it is like a gift from God.”
Following Doha, her major goal in 2020 is to target the Tokyo Olympics, where she hopes to become only the second woman in history to claim back-to-back Olympic 1500m titles before a potential move in distance up to the 5000m.
Yet given her near flawless championship record, which has seen her snare world U18, U20 and senior 1500m titles as well as Olympic and Commonwealth crowns, what is her secret?
“First of all, I believe in myself,” she explains. “I am always confident I can win. I always listen to my coach and follow his plan.”
So what are Kipyegon’s best qualities: strength, endurance, tactical ability, mental strength?
“I think I’m good at all of them,” she adds before letting out her trademark laugh.
And with such an exemplary championship record, few can dispute her claims.
Steve Landells for the IAAF