Hellen Obiri came close to walking away from the sport eight years ago.
The Kenyan, aged 22 at the time, was so disappointed with her performance at the 2012 Olympic Games, she considered quitting there and then. She had won the world indoor 3000m title earlier that year and went on to improve her 1500m PB to 3:59.68 at the start of the outdoor season, making her one of the fastest women on the startline for the Olympic final.
But she finished right at the back of the field in 12th place – later upgraded to eighth following the disqualification of four athletes from that race – and was unable to explain what had gone wrong.
Thankfully, however, she soon got over the disappointment and her career has gone from strength to strength.
She is now the only woman in history to have won world titles indoors, outdoors and at cross country. One medal is missing from her collection, though.
“I’ve won a lot but I’m not yet there,” she says. “Olympic gold is the only medal that's missing from my collection.
“At the start of the year we were training for the Olympics in 2020 but then of course we received the sad news that there would be no Olympics this year,” she added. “It’s hard to put your dreams on hold for another year when you wanted to achieve something good, but we have to be patient and train hard for 2021. The pandemic has affected the whole world. All we can do now is look ahead to 2021.”
Had the Games gone ahead this year, the 30-year-old would have been one of the big favourites over 5000m, the event in which she won world titles in 2017 and 2019. She has raced just three times on the track so far in 2020, but produced world-leading times in two of those appearances.
The 5000m at the Wanda Diamond League meeting was her season opener and she won convincingly in 14:22.12, the fourth-fastest time of her career. Just earlier this week, in a high-quality 3000m that she described as being “like a championship final”, she triumphed again in 8:22.54, the second-fastest time of her career behind the outdoor African record of 8:20.68 on the same track in Doha.
In a year with no major championships and with world rankings and Olympic qualifying suspended, performances in 2020 may not count for much. But Obiri has sent a clear message to her competitors that, even in an off year like this one, she is hard to beat. And she will be an even more formidable opponent in an Olympic year.
“I have one more race in Nairobi (at the World Athletics Continental Tour Gold meeting on 3 October), then I’ll take a break and start to prepare for the Olympics,” she said. “I hope to do even better in 2021.”
The fourth-born of six children, Obiri was raised in Kisii and Nairobi. She attended Nairobi’s Riruta Satellite Secondary, the same school as 2009 world U18 1500m champion Nelly Chebet Ngeiywo and 2006 world U20 cross-country champion Pauline Korikwiang.
Obiri started out as an 800m runner, but in 2010 she met 2000 Olympic 1500m champion Noah Ngeny at a training camp in Riruta and he suggested that she should move to the metric mile. In July the following year, Obiri won the Kenyan 1500m title and earned a spot on the national team for the World Championships in Daegu.
The 1500m remained Obiri’s main event until 2016, her comeback year following the birth of her daughter in May 2015, when she moved up to the 5000m. She also found she had renewed motivation.
“I’ve spoken to some other Kenyan athletes, including Vivian Cheruiyot, about the challenges you face when you come back from maternity leave,” she says. “One of the biggest challenges is getting back in shape. When you become a mother, you need to work extra hard because you have somebody who looks up to you. You’re a family woman. That motivates you a lot.”
Like many athletes, the pandemic disrupted Obiri’s training and competition plans for 2020. But one silver lining is that she got to spend even more time at home with her husband Tom Nyaudi, who is also her coach, and her five-year-old daughter, Tania.
“When I’m at home, my favourite thing is playing with my girl,” said Obiri. “My child is so funny when she plays around. She does funny things and I can’t help but watch. So many people tell me “your daughter doesn’t look like you, but she’s funny like you are.”
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2021 and beyond
Obiri earned Olympic silver in 2016, just 15 months after she gave birth. And while there’s still some uncertainty surrounding the Tokyo Olympic Games, Obiri is hopeful that she can continue her momentum from her strong 2019 and 2020 campaigns and arrive in the Japanese capital in the form of her life.
It’s too early to predict who exactly her rivals will be, but the competition from her fellow Kenyans will be fierce, given that Margaret Chelimo Kipkemboi took silver behind Obiri in Doha last year and compatriot Lilian Rengeruk also placed in the top five. The Ethiopian team will of course be strong, and then there’s Sifan Hassan, the Dutch star who won the world titles at 1500m and 10,000m in Doha last year.
Hassan appeared unbeatable when cruising to her two global crowns in the Qatari capital in 2019, and she leads Obiri in their career head-to-head record at 14-10. Obiri, however, has the edge at 5000m, having won five of their six clashes.
In fact, since the start of 2017, Obiri has won 15 of her 18 races at 5000m. And outdoors, she has broken 14:30 more than any other woman in history.
But 2021 may be her last full season on the track.
“Of course we still don't know for certain if the Olympics will go ahead next year, but I'm preparing to move to the roads from 2021 onwards,” she said. “I also hope to have another child, but I don’t know when that will happen.”
Obiri has raced sparingly on the roads, but the early signs have been promising. At the end of 2018 she clocked 29:59 for 10km, albeit on a slightly downhill course, to finish second in Madrid. A few months later, she won the Great Manchester Run. But if she is to become a full-time road runner, she knows she’ll have to change her training quite significantly.
“There is a difference between track and road races,” she says. “For racing on the track, I have to do a lot of track and speed sessions in preparation, but for the road I have to have a lot of mileage in my body because it's less about speed and more about endurance.”
For now, though, her immediate focus will be on next year’s Olympic Games where she hopes to add another gold medal to her collection. And on the evidence of this year, not many would bet against that.
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics