From not speaking the language to competing for the national team at Tokyo 2020, Belgian runner Isaac Kimeli is aiming for gold
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From not speaking the language to competing for the national team at Tokyo 2020, Belgian runner Isaac Kimeli is aiming for gold

Kenya’s golden grasslands and lush cornfields are a far cry from the rolling hills and green forests that run across Beersel in Belgium, a province just outside Brussels, where budding Olympian Isaac Kimeli has been training for his first Games.

The 27-year-old Belgian track and field star has spent the last couple of years prepping for Tokyo 2020, ever since he ran a personal best of 13:13.02 in 2019 to qualify for the 5,000 meters.

“I didn’t expect to run the standard so early; it was a very emotional moment,” Kimeli tells CNN Sport.

In May this year, he also qualified for the 10,000m after achieving a personal best of 27:22.70 at the Olympiastadion in Stockholm.

In search of a better life

But his journey to the Olympics began way before 2019.

Kimeli’s mother left their home county of Uasin Gishu in Kenya and migrated to Belgium when he was four years old, working as a nurse in a local hospital. “My mother was coming to Belgium to search for a better life,” he says.

At the time, he was left in his grandparents’ care — admitting that at such a tender age, he felt marooned by her absence. “I think it was difficult to see why she was leaving for another country.”

When Kimeli turned 15, he also left Uasin Gishu and reunited with his mother in Sint-Pieters-Leeuw. He says at first it was hard for them to foster a good relationship, as they hadn’t seen each other for over a decade. “It’s a little strange to see your mother again after so long.”

Having never stepped foot on a plane before, he arrived in the capital city wide-eyed yet apprehensive. Without a close knit community and unable to speak the local language, he struggled to fit in with his new environment.

“The weather was so cold,” he says. “I didn’t speak French, and I didn’t speak Dutch. For me, everything was new.”

There was also a difference in the community dynamic. In Kenya, Kimeli was used to spending time with his close-knit coterie, forging strong bonds through shared meals and regular conversations. But in Belgium, the lack of interaction with fellow residents made him feel isolated.

“Here you don’t talk with your neighbors, it was a big difference.”

Finding his feet

A bored and lonely teenager, Kimeli was homesick for Kenya. “I didn’t like Belgium, I wanted to go back home,” he says.

But his luck changed when his PE teachers spotted him running at a cross-country event. He was attending school to learn Dutch at the time but was having more success on the track than in the classroom.

“I was winning every time … two minutes ahead of the other schoolmates,” he says.

His PE teachers encouraged him to join a track club to harness his talent, though it took him some time to get to grips with the rules of the sport.

In one of his first junior events, Kimeli ran one lap and began celebrating his finish, before realizing he had a few more to go until the end of the race.

“When I arrived there at the start, I thought I was in front of the other athletes,” he says. “I think I was 25th place.”

“Nobody told me it’d be two or three laps,” he adds. “It was funny.”

Kimeli also tried his hand at football, but the language barrier proved too much of an obstacle.

“It was difficult because you’re playing with the guys who are speaking Dutch, and I didn’t speak Dutch,” he says. “When they told me, ‘Give me the pass, give me the ball,’ I didn’t understand.”

Eventually he settled on running, as the solitary nature of the sport meant he only had to rely on himself.

His mother bought him a pair of running shoes, and he began training in Hallerbos with his first coach, David Evenepoel. In 2011, Kimeli competed in his first international competition at the European Youth Olympics Festival in Turkey.

Committing to an Olympic dream

Two years later, Kimeli committed to his dream of going to the Olympics when he won a silver medal in the men’s junior race at the European Cross Country Championships in Serbia.

He had begun training with Tim Moriau, who was also encouraged by his result, telling him, “‘We’re going to work hard and maybe one day you can go to the Olympics, maybe you can run with the big guys.’

“I said, ‘Coach, are you sure you want me to go to the Olympics?’ He said […] ‘You have talent, just start training and focus on yourself,'” Kimeli adds. “That’s the moment when I said to myself OK, if you take second place in the European championships, you’ll have more progression.”

Since then, he’s achieved stellar finishes at multiple track events, earning a gold medal at the European Cross Country Championships in 2016, a silver medal at the same tournament in 2018, and most recently winning a silver medal at the European Athletics Indoor Championship.

He’s also had the opportunity to pass on his expertize to aspiring runners by captaining the Runners’ lab Athletics Elite Men’s Team, which provides professional infrastructure for top European athletes.

“My role is to advise athletes and give them experience,” says Kimeli. “I try to motivate the other athletes.”

‘I want to make my family proud’

This year, he’s hoping to add to his silverware at Tokyo 2020, entering the competition as a seasoned middle-distance runner.

“I’ve grown as an athlete,” he says, “I feel that mentally I’m much stronger.”

Kimeli hadn’t been introduced to the sport in Uasin Gishu, instead spending time in school and tending to cattle with his grandfather on his family’s farm.

“When I was in Kenya, I had never run,” he says.

But perhaps his success on the track was predestined.

Kenya has produced some of the most accomplished distance runners on the planet, including marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge and Olympic record holder Vivian Cheruiyot.

When Kimeli was growing up, his grandfather doled out important life lessons that set him in good stead for his journey to becoming an Olympian.

“My grandfather was like my father,” he says. “He taught me, ‘Isaac, in your life, you have to be smart. You have to respect people. Don’t talk too much, just concentrate on yourself. Enjoy your life and work hard, and help your family.

“Don’t forget what’s important.'”

His grandfather passed away soon after Kimeli left for Belgium, so he never got to see his grandson’s success.

Last year, Kimeli visited his family in Kenya, where he had the chance to commemorate his grandfather’s memory by laying down the first school cross-country medal he ever won by his final resting place. “I gave him the medal to make him proud.”

He says his grandmother, who is thrilled by his achievements, calls him when she watches his races on TV, telling him, “‘Don’t forget us.'”

The absence of international spectators at the Games means his family is unlikely to be in the stadium, but he knows they’ll be cheering him on at home. “I want to make my family proud,” he says. “That’s why I want to work hard, that’s what gives me more motivation.”

Running for Belgium

By sharing his story, Kimeli hopes others will be inspired to push for their dreams, no matter where they come from.

“When I was in Kenya, I never dreamed that I could wear Adidas or Nike shoes,” he says. “I want to show other young people that everything is possible, and nobody is limited.”

He has just as much gratitude for his new home as he does for his birthplace. “I want to thank Belgium, they gave me a lot of opportunity,” he says. “Belgium changed me as a person, and also my life.”

“I know my blood is Kenyan, but in my heart, I’m running for Belgium.”

With less than a month to go until the scheduled start date, Kimeli says his participation in the Games doesn’t yet feel real.

“It’s still a dream to go there, and understand how a young boy from Kenya who was running with no shoes […] now he’s going to the Olympics,” he says. “It’s amazing, I still can’t believe it. I will believe it when I’m in Tokyo.”

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