Faith Kipyegon: From humble beginnings to global phenomenon

15th December 2023

The 1500m sensation made history as she became the first Kenyan woman to be crowned World Athlete of the Year after a staggering 2023 campaign on track.

Faith Kipyegon celebrates after winning her first world 5000m crown. PHOTO| AFP
Faith Kipyegon celebrates after winning her first world 5000m crown. PHOTO| AFP
  • Kipyegon was crowned the 2023 Women’s World Athlete of the Year (Track).
  • She became the first Kenyan woman to receive that award from governing body World Athletics.
  • Kipyegon broke three different records on track in a span of just two months before becoming the first woman in history to do the 1500-5000m double at a World Championship event.


That is what people call Kenya’s 1500 metre world beater Faith Kipyegon.

For all the achievements she has racked up in her collection, it is near impossible to argue with the phenom that the 29 year old is.

World Youth champion. World U20 champion. World Relay Champion. World U20 Cross Country Champion (2). Commonwealth champion. Diamond League Champion (4). World Champion (4). Olympic Champion (2) and World Record holder (2).

Before the 2023 annual World Athletic Awards that were held in Monaco, France she was just whiskers away from being the almost complete package.

On Monday 11 December 2023, Kipyegon did it all as she etched her name into a territory that no other Kenyan woman had ever managed before as she was crowned the Women’s World Athlete of the Year (Track).

After a staggering season, the double Olympic champion had clearly been among the favorites to win during the annual awards as years of hard work finally seemed to have no match.

Nominated in a competitive final list consisting of Ethiopia’s long-distance runner Tigist Assefa, 400m hurdler Femke Bol (Netherlands), sprint queen Shericka Jackson (Jamaica) and Venezuelan triple jump ace Yulimar Rojas, confidence was high that the mother of one would go down into the history books come the end of the event.

“2023 was absolutely my best year so far because I do not know what will happen going forward. But the way I performed this year was incredible and it has greatly motivated me even for the future.

I hope going forward I can take lessons from the season and motivate the upcoming generation as well,” Kipyegon told  SportPesa News in an exclusive interview before the awards in Monaco.

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In the season that began at home with a convincing performance at the Sirikwa Cross Country in Eldoret, Kipyegon outdid herself in breaking three different records on track in a span of just two months before becoming the first woman in history to do the 1500-5000m double at a World Championship event (Budapest 2023).

First, the 29-year-old Kenyan improved the world 1500m record to 3:49.11 in Florence on 2 June, taking almost a full second off the previous mark.

Just one week later, and despite having raced the 5000m just twice before, she improved the world record for that event, too, clocking 14:05.20 in Paris to shave 1.42 seconds from the old record. (Her record has since been broken by Ethiopia’s Gudaf Tsegay).

Her third world record came in Monaco on 21 July, where she smashed the previous mile mark by five seconds, clocking 4:07.64.

Then, in Budapest, she won her third senior world 1500m title and her first world 5000m crown.

A successful title defense of her Diamond League title would then follow with her fourth overall crown before her road running debut in Riga, Latvia ended with a bronze medal to close off one of the most outstanding seasons an athlete has had.

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Her exploits simply left opponents, who were always in her wake, surprised as victory became an expectation whenever she stepped on track.

And in the 2023 World Athlete of the Year Awards, the expectation remained the same.

Up until the governing body decided to split the award into different categories for the 2023 campaign, leaving her with the World Athlete of the Year (Track) as Rojas and Assefa took the awards in the newly-created Field and Out of stadia categories respectively, meaning there was no overall winner.

While there was some sense of disappointment in the new criteria, the award still marked the ultimate peak in Kipyegon’s career as she went down into the history books after an immaculate year.

“I am so proud of myself. To have managed what I achieved this year was magnificent and a dream come true from a long time ago. The award was the closure of a beautiful 2023 season for me.

Getting this trophy after all the obstacles and hard work I have been through has just been an amazing achievement and I want to thank everyone who has supported me towards this long journey to success,” Kipyegon said in her acceptance speech.

But for the history-making Kipyegon, despite hitting some of the highest crests the athletic world has had to offer in her over ten-year career, her biggest character remains to be humility.

For the little girl who grew up in Keringet Village in Nakuru County, it is a trait that consumes her very existence with her wide smile making every inch of the superstar as relatable as a normal human being.

Her journey literally started from the bottom. But now, she’s there. At the very top!

This is the story of how she rose from humble beginnings to the complete global phenomenon.

Faith without the spikes

Kipyegon’s journey in the sport started from one extreme end as she stares at one of her old photos with admiration before bursting into her infectious smile.

“Wow! This was when we had national trials for the 2011 World Cross Country Championship in Punta Umbria, Spain and got selected to the team after I won,” she regales to SportPesa News.

The then youngster, fresh from shaving a couple of days before the race, is running barefoot in the trials held at the famous Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi alongside her competitors.

She was only making inroads into the game but her passion at that very moment was already unmatched, and in retrospect, the 3-time 1500m World champion reveals that moment remains to be one of the closest to her heart as she opens up on the reason behind running without the spikes back then.

“We were always used to running barefoot and 2011 is when I had just gotten a manager but I still did not like the idea of using shoes by then.

The race came when I was still learning to use the spikes and that is why I opted to run without them,” she reveals.

“But when I look back at that photo, I am really proud of myself and the steps I have taken to where I am. I think it is all about hard work and respecting the people who guide me in what I do.

If it were not for people close to me – my husband, my coach, my physio, my management, I think I would have gotten money and strayed to doing some not so helpful things.

But because of them, I have managed to stay true to the course and continued to do the right things,” she reflects.

“I am proud of this period when I was running barefoot because if I did not learn the lessons from that point, I would not be where I am. It is the best memory that shapes my career till today,” Kipyegon, who is married to 800m London Olympics bronze medalist Timothy Kitum, says.

Back then, not many people knew what Kipyegon would turn into watching from her humble beginnings.

But those who were around to witness the journey from her junior days saw Kipyegon’s transformation from a precocious ability to one of the sporting greats.

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Mutwiri Mutuota, the 2008 CNN Africa Journalist Award Sport winner, who covered Kipyegon from her budding days in the sport summed up the athlete’s inspirational journey on the night she became the ultimate great in the 1500m distance in Florence, Italy.

“The amazing transformation for Faith Kipyegon happened right in front of our eyes! From a young girl who just wanted to be given a chance to compete against her seniors to the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time) in 1500m, now crowned with a 3:49.11 World Record. Congratulations!” Mutuota posted on the day Kipyegon broke the record in her 1500m specialty on June 2.

It was an overwhelming night. Not only for the little girl who used to run without spikes but for the whole country and world at large.

Even the other athletes, who were supposed to be her competitors, were in awe.

They engulfed her after the race in one of the loveliest sporting gestures ever seen across any competition as they passed their nod of approval to an athlete who had greatly deserved to own the record after a couple of hard grafted unsuccessful attempts.

“It was really beautiful for the other competitors to come along and celebrate with me the way they did after the race. It was special and emotional at the same time because in track and field, I think I am the first one to be celebrated that way,” Kipyegon remembered.

For her, sport was not something that was not difficult to access. From an early age, the double Olympic champion juggled a lot of activities without finding a footing as to which one to settle on.

Sometimes, it usually came at a price.

“I was in every sport when I was a child. At one time, I was even in gymnastics and I remember hurting my leg to a point that I had to use crutches after a poor landing.

But I had not started athletics yet and we were just kids who were enjoying their time,” Kipyegon narrates.

Her destiny with athletics bore from her days in primary school where her prowess was too good to go unnoticed as her primary school teacher spotted the talent that lay within.

“When I was in school, we had school games and it happened that our games teacher used to make us go for 1 km runs around the school just for fun that I used to always win. When I got to class 5, despite being small, I got to the national school games for the first time.

It is in class 6 that I started featuring in the nationals quite often. That is when I started thinking about running a bit seriously and started realizing that I could actually do it,” Kipyegon reminisces.

While she might have harboured thoughts of whether to do it or not, the universe aligned everything for her as she got wind about the likes of Pamelo Jelimo and Nancy Chebet Lagat, the first two Kenyan women to win Gold at an Olympic event (Beijing 2008).

And what better motivation to thrust her down the athletic path than the two legends.

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“Around that time is when I heard about the likes of Pamela Jelimo and Nancy Chebet Lagat. One day, Nancy was being given a home-welcoming and her place was near ours.

I managed to attend the event and that is how I got the motivation and the desire to get into running,” she reminisced..

And the rest as they say, is history.

Having navigated her way in the sport and grown in confidence but mostly experience from her youth days, Kipyegon grew in leaps and bounds as she claimed title after title while progressing across every stage in her career.

Junior glory would kickstart the process before her dominance in the U20 Championship followed in her formative years.

The promising athlete gave a teaser of the potential that lay within as in July 2014, Kipyegon took her first senior 1500m victory, becoming the Glasgow Commonwealth Games champion in Scotland with a time of 4:08.94.

That win proved to be no fluke as the 21-year-old then went on to grab a first World title, winning silver in the 2015 World Championships held in Beijing after a tactical race won by the then fresh world record holder Genzebe Dibaba as Sifan Hassan took third.

On 11 September that year, she secured her first Diamond League victory, winning the mile race in Brussels where she set a meeting and African record of 4:16.71 in a notable victory.

It is in 2016 that she went on to clinch one of the most prized titles when she won the 1500m Gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016 in what was her second appearance in an Olympic event having failed to make it out of the heats at the 2012 London Games.

Her Rio achievement ended up having a funny story as it trickled down to her village in Nakuru getting connected with electricity after years of living in darkness.

“After I won the Rio 2016 Olympics, my village got electricity through the government. At that time, I never thought my village would have power because it was miles away from the main grid lines and it was really expensive to get power to your homestead on your own.

I was really grateful for that gesture from the government by the way because it would have been really expensive to do that project on our own,” she recollects.

What would follow for Kipyegon, would be victory after victory with her first senior Diamond League trophy coming in 2017 before her maiden World Championship success in London.

She became the first Kenyan female world 1500m champion and only the third woman in history to win both the Olympic and World Championship finals over the distance.

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"I won the Olympics in 2016 but the victory at the World Championships in 2017 was sweeter because I fought the hardest. In 2016 Rio, I was only wary of Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia because I had a fantastic season.

In London, Caster Semenya, Dibaba, Sifan Hassan, Laura Muir and Jennifer Simpson were all gold medal prospects," Kipyegon said in an interview back then.

Motherhood and comeback

However, all her advancements on track took a pause as she took an almost 18-month break to give birth to her daughter Alyn in June 2018 before making her comeback in January 2019 to start all over again, this time as a mother.

At the end of June, 12 months after the childbirth, she made her racing comeback in style, winning her specialty in 3:59:04 at the Eugene Diamond League, the Prefontaine Classic, held that year in Palo Alto.

Kipyegon then went on to take the silver medal at the World Championships in Doha, where she chopped more than two seconds from her 2016 Kenyan record in the final with a time of 3:54.22 with Hassan taking gold.

With a lot of hard work and determination to boot, Kipyegon went back to the summit of the world with her second Olympic gold at the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics in August 2021.

She overtook Hassan in the last 200m to secure her second consecutive Olympic gold medal in the event in a time of 3:53.11, breaking the Games record which had stood for 33 years as she became the second woman in history to win back-to-back Olympic 1500 m titles.

She would then clinch a second World title in Eugene 2022 before the phenomenal 2023 season that saw her break records for fun as she confirmed her status as the Greatest of All Time.

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