The Irish priest coaching Kenyan athletes

Watching the Olympics this week? If you tune into the men’s 800-meter track final on Thursday, pay attention to Kenya’s David O'Connell Rudisha, the current world record holder and favorite to win gold. Rudisha’s coach happens to be a Catholic priest originally from Ireland, who’ll be watching his athlete compete from a barstool in Kenya. From Outside magazine:

Meanwhile, should Rudisha win, his longtime coach, the man largely responsible for the Kenyan’s powerful, front-running style, doesn’t even plan to be in the crowd to congratulate him. Indeed, his coach, a 63-year-old Irish priest named Brother Colm O’Connell, probably won’t even be on the same continent. He’ll be 4,000 miles away, sitting on a barstool at the Kerio View Hotel in Iten, Kenya—a village perched on the western escarpment of the Great Rift Valley—watching events unfold on television. “I’m not so attached that I have to go and see them winning races,” said O’Connell of Rudisha and the other athletes he coaches, including Olympic middle-distance hopefuls Augustine Choge and Isaac Songok.

O'Connel’s unlikely rise began 36 years ago, when, he says, he experienced a sort of epiphany. Born in 1949, in rural Cork, Ireland, he joined the priesthood in his early twenties and began work as a geography teacher and part-time coach at the Newbridge School, in County Kildare. In 1976, while standing on the sideline at a Gaelic football match on a miserable, rainy Irish afternoon, he was asked by an older teacher whether he would volunteer to teach abroad, in Kenya. O’Connell took a look at the weather and said yes.

Less than four months later, O’Connell arrived at St. Patrick’s, Iten, a notably successful Patrician Brothers school with a strong reputation for athletics. The next day, he was dragged to a track competition in the nearby town of Eldoret. He’d never seen a track meet before. The man who accompanied him was Peter Foster, a 21-year-old from Newcastle, England, working for Voluntary Service Overseas. Foster was temporarily in charge of track and cross-country at St. Patrick’s, and he’d been looking for someone to coach the team when his stint in Kenya ended. He fixed on the new man.

Read the full article here.

J Cosgrove
4 years 9 months ago
I have a question.  Is Colm O'Connell a brother or a priest?
J Cosgrove
4 years 9 months ago
David Rudisha broke the world record today in the 800 m final and obviously won.
David Smith
4 years 9 months ago
Very nice article. Thanks! This bit:
As he held the stopwatch for his athletes at the Chepkoilel track, near Iten, Sang pointed out that O’Connell’s lack of sophisticated methods is a good thing: a rigid approach might work the magic out of some Kenyan athletes. “If Rudisha was trained by a system to be a perfect athlete, it might destroy him,” he said. “If you get a supercoach, they only look at a blueprint—a product. Brother Colm goes to the roots. He understands people, where they come from.”
points out something that's good to keep in mind when we think about what we'll lose when Catholic schools and Catholic hospitals become fully secularized, as they will.
J Cosgrove
4 years 9 months ago
Thank you for pointing out this great article. It puts a completely different face on what is behind some of the best athletes.  I work with someone who is on the opposite end of the spectrum of athlete training, one who makes his living on knowing everything that is happening physiologically within the athlete and how best to train the internal engine that generates the energy to contract the muscles.  One who works in VO2 max's and anaerobic capacity and the balancing of the energy systems to produce the optimal performance.  Where the athletes not only have a coach, but a nutritionist, a mental coach, a training adviser. a guru on technique and the coach is one who integrates all these different people.  


But here we have one man using his gut feel to produce world class athletes.  The secrets of Kenyan runners has been a hot topic in the exercise physiology world for several years now and it is great to put a face on some of the things behind it.  I will send this article to my friend.  He is always interested in what it takes to get a top performance.  And he knows that there is a lot more important things  to the individual than the actual performance and that each athlete is different and must be nurtured according to their individual situation and where they want to go in life.

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