Tegla Loroupe on life after the track

01 Oct 2021 . 1,477 Views

In 1994, Tegla Loroupe became the first ever African woman to win the New York City Marathon at the age of 21 earning her a place in the hall of fame of long distance and track runners.

It was the first major marathon Loroupe ran and won, that marked the beginning of building her legacy as one of Kenya’s best female athletes in the world.

Twenty-seven years later, Loroupe, 48, is a former marathon world record holder and a three-time World Half Marathon champion. She won the New York City Marathon twice and other marathons in London, Rome, Berlin, Rotterdam and Hong Kong. She also holds world records for the 25 and 30 kilometers marathons.

But what these world records don’t tell you, are the obstacles Loroupe -who grew up in Kapsait Village in West Pokot – had to overcome to become a legend in the athletics world.

They don’t tell you how for years, she struggled to make her community known for sporting greatness rather than conflict.

They don’t tell you how the Athletics Federation frustrated her ambitions during the start of her career.

And they definitely don’t tell you that nobody, not even her community, supported her career until she started winning cross-country competitions.

“Winning the New York Marathon opened doors for me because I started getting invitations to different competitions without anyone putting obstacles in my way. I had a lot of issues with the Federation because they used to kick me out of the team,” she says.

Back then, the Federation thought she was too tiny to compete, and this only changed when she won a cross country competition in Iten. Her success in that competition gave her confidence to realise she could also compete against female athletes from the more well-known areas where athletes came from, Nandi and Keiyo.

The lack of support from the Federation didn’t discourage her. It only fueled her ambition further to want to represent the country on the world stage.

I had the will and I did it

“I wanted to run for my country because my country comes first. But still, I faced so many barriers; people didn’t like me because I come from a warring community, where people thought that because I was a girl, I couldn’t do more. And nobody thought I could run cross country because it was a tough environment. But I had the will and I did it. That’s when my community started to be very close to me. I always tell people you determine your destination, so listen to your internal strength,” Loroupe says.

“Winning the New York Marathon was a way for me to tell the world that women from Kenya, from Africa can compete against the world. When we are outside there, people always talk negatively about Africa, especially about women, not knowing that when given opportunities our women can be just as great as the others. Today, our women are winning globally,” she says.

Tegla is one of the athletes featured in the documentary on Safaricom’s support for sports published recently.

The Kipchoge of West Pokot

Growing up, Loroupe did not have a mentor to look up to. But she remembers seeing Kipchoge Keino, one of Kenya’s greatest Olympic athletes, on television when he featured in a beverage, Milo, commercial, and that’s when she found her role model.

It was from that moment that she decided to be “the Kipchoge of West Pokot.”

“In West Pokot we are infamous for conflict, nobody realizes that good things come from that area. So, the driving force for me was Kipchoge. I became determined to “clean” the perception of West Pokot and make it known for something positive,” she says.

The retired world champion athlete is the president of the Tegla Lorupe Peace Foundation, a charity organization that focuses on creating peace initiatives in conflict areas in Kenya and also fosters economic empowerment among pastoralist communities.

The Foundation was established in 2003 and uses sports as a common ground to unite warring tribes.

Protecting young girls from becoming wives and young boys from becoming warriors

The Foundation also runs the Tegla Loroupe Education and Peace School in Kapenguria for disadvantaged children who come from conflict areas.

Growing up surrounded by conflict, Loroupe saw firsthand the effects of warring tribes and how it affected her family.

“We live in the border between Marakwet and Pokot and every time there was an issue… it escalated many times. I’ve lost family to that. I remember we lost our cousin who grew up in our family, she’d left our home to go visit her parents and she was killed. In 2000, our animals who were stolen and taken to Uganda. So, I know what it means when people talk about conflict,” she says.

But with the school, Loroupe is glad she has a hand in protecting young girls from becoming wives and young boys from becoming warriors.

“Our people fight because of lack of resources and lack of knowledge. This school supports kids and keeps them away from conflict, early marriages and being sent to take care of animals,” she says.

Loroupe is proud of the school’s achievements, having been ranked first in semi and private schools in West Pokot County.

“We used to have a son of a reformed warrior who is now in form three in Embu,” she says of a former student. “This year, we had a girl, a daughter of a former warrior from Turkana, who scored 396. Her father was really proud to say ‘this is my girl’, because his daughter did something he couldn’t. This is where children of the people of Turkana and Pokot come to learn together,” Says Loroupe.  The Turkana and Pokot in Northwestern Kenya have a long history of conflict anchored on cattle rustling.

Through the years, the Tegla Lorupe Peace Foundation has received support from the government, NGO’s and individuals of goodwill. Safaricom is among the organisations that came on board to support the Foundations projects including the school.

Though retired from professional running, Loroupe is still immersed in the sport. In 2016 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) partnered with the Tegla Lorupe Peace Foundation to mentor and train talented refugee athletes in Kenya whom she led to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

In 2019, she again reprised her role as Chef de Mission for the Refugee Olympic Team for Tokyo 2020.

Still, with her hands full with the Foundation’s work and other roles that stem from her work as a peace ambassador, Loroupe carves out time to go home and enjoy a regular life.

“I wish I had more time to spend for myself. When I’m at home in West Pokot I work, I go to the farm. You should see my hands, I was at home for 10 days,” she says of her most recent trip home.

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See also

  • SDG 17 - Partnerships for the goals
  • SDG 3 (Ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing for all at all ages) and 17 (Strengthening the means of implementation and revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development)
  • SDG 4


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