Olympic Dream
Olympic Dream
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In a span of 81 days in 1978, Henry Rono broke four world records, committing the most ferocious assault on the track-and-field record books by a middle-distance runner in the history of the sport.


This is what Henry Rono is known for. However, it is not who Henry Rono is.


Henry Rono was born a poor Nandi in Kenya's Rift Valley. After an accident when he was two, doctors believed he would never again walk. This would be the first of countless obstacles Rono would have to overcome in order to pursue his two life goals: to first become the greatest runner in the world and then to become the best teacher he could be.


Rono's first goal was accomplished in 1978, when he was considered not only the greatest track-and-field athlete in the world, but also by many to be the world's greatest athlete period. His second and greater goal, to become a teacher, was more difficult in coming.


Once Rono became a star, coaches, agents, meet directors, and corrupt Kenyan athletic officials (whose boycotts of the 1976 and 1980 Olympics turned Rono's dreams of Olympic gold into Olympic smoke rings), wanted him to serve as their personal moneymaker, and so they did everything they could to discourage Rono's pursuit of an education and dream of teaching. The corruption and discouragement Rono encountered, as well as his alienation and exile from his homeland and family, pushed him to 20 years of alcoholism and even occasional homelessness.


This is the life story of Henry Rono, whose descent from triumph to abyss, and whose subsequent ascent from abyss to triumph, are perhaps steeper than those of any track-and field athlete in history.

When I picked up the phone on March 8, 1982 to hear the voice of Alberto Salazar—the talented and charismatic runner who was currently the golden child of the American running world and of Nike—I knew exactly what he needed from me.

    It had recently been in the sports reports that Nike made a deal with Salazar: if he could organize a series of middle-distance races against the world’s premier runners and not only win each of these events, but break American records in the process, the company would make him the first single-season millionaire in track-and-field history. However, Nike had one more stipulation: the current world-record holder in the 10,000 meters, Henry Rono, must run in that event, which was the first on Salazar’s schedule.

            After the first mile of the race, Salazar and I pulled away from the pack. Fortunately for me, his pace lessened, allowing me to finish the second mile in less than nine minutes. Between the second mile and the race’s halfway mark, which we passed at 13:45 (keeping Salazar’s hopes for the American record alive), the pace remained consistent. Salazar’s running style was graceful, his leg kicks low and his stride long, which made it easy for me to draft off of him without worrying about his back kick. Salazar liked to run evenly paced races, scarcely attempting to intimidate or test his competition by mixing up his pace or surging.

With a third of the race remaining, Salazar and I put 100 meters between us and the rest of the field, and it was clear to the crowd that the race would go down to the wire, like a classic heavyweight bout between two grizzled champions slugging it out toe to toe. When Salazar and I came down along the straightaway on our penultimate lap, the bell signaling the final lap rang out. Salazar was still leading, but I was closing the little distance that remained between us. With 200 meters left, I came up alongside Salazar, running shoulder-to-shoulder with him for a few seconds before taking a tenuous lead. With 100 meters left, I put my right hand up to signal to the crowd that I had the strength to finish Salazar off. With 25 meters left, I finally made my surge, for which Salazar had no answer.

I beat Salazar by one tenth of a second and was rewarded with one of the heartiest ovations I ever received. I now consider that race to be the most memorable and exhilarating victory of my running career. In the days and months following my victory, the sports pages and track publications touted the outcome as one of the closest and most thrilling finishes ever in a major track-and-field race.

Henry Rono is currently training to break the world record in the mile for men 55 and over. To track Henry's pursuit of the record and to keep up with his other endeavors, please visit http://www.team-rono.com.


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