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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Henry Rono, record-breaking distance runner from Kenya, dies at 72

Henry Rono in 1978 (Wikipedia)

By Alex Williams

Henry Rono, a Kenyan distance runner who was unable to walk until he was 6 after a gruesome injury to his right leg when he was a toddler but went on to break four world records in just 81 days in 1978, died Thursday in Nairobi. He was 72.

His death was announced by Athletics Kenya, an amateur athletic association. He died in a hospital, where he had spent 10 days with an unspecified illness.

Rono was twice denied shots at Olympic glory in his 20s, when Kenya joined boycotts of the Games in 1976 and 1980. Even so, he was celebrated as one of the country’s great athletes.

He made his mark on track-and-field history in 1978, as a 26-year-old sophomore at Washington State University, when he galloped into the record books for the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meters and the 3,000-meter steeplechase, with its 28 barriers and seven water jumps.

“He was such a powerful guy — big barrel chest — and incredibly efficient,” Phil English, a former teammate at Washington State, said in an interview after Rono’s death with the Spokane, Washington, newspaper The Spokesman-Review. “The incredible thing about those world records is the versatility it takes — the speed for the 3,000 and the skill of the steeple, and then the far reaches of the 10,000. You just don’t see that kind of range.”

Rono’s remarkable success over such a short period made him an object of global fascination in the track world.

“People wanted me to go everywhere to run. When I was running in Finland, there would be a meet promoter from Italy,” he said in a 1982 interview with Track & Field News. “When I was running in Italy, there would be one from Japan, and Australia and New Zealand.”

With his low-key personality and his apparent immunity to braggadocio, Rono found the spotlight disorienting. “People wanted me to go there and there and there and there,” he said. “It was like they didn’t even think I was a human being like them; I was an extraordinary person to them, a machine they thought could do anything.”

Henry Rono was born Kipwambok Rono on Feb. 12, 1952, in Kiptaragon, a village in Nandi County, Kenya. The Star, a newspaper in Nairobi, recently described the region as having “the highest concentration of local and international runners, more than any other region, probably in the world.” Kipchoge Keino, an early inspiration to Rono who took gold in the 1,500-meter run at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, grew up in a neighboring village.

As a small child, Rono fell off a bicycle that his uncle was riding to ferry him from his grandmother’s house, snapping his right ankle in the spinning spokes. “For many years, as other children my age grew stronger and faster, I was only able to crawl,” he wrote in a memoir, “Olympic Dream” (2010).

Around the time he could finally walk, his father died after being startled by a snake while driving a tractor and falling into the path of the plow. His mother was left to support the family, in part by selling home brews of two potent alcoholic beverages, chang’aa and busaa.

Rono took up running around the time he completed seventh grade, at 19. At the primary school in the village, he also met his future wife, Jennifer, with whom he had two children, Calvin and Maureen.

He trained extensively during a stint in the Kenyan army, and eventually found enough success running to be named to the national team for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

He would never make it there, though, because Kenya joined a boycott with other African nations in protest over the participation of New Zealand, whose national rugby team was touring apartheid South Africa.

It was a crushing blow. “I thought this man would come home with two golds,” Keino, Rono’s idol, who was coaching the Kenyan team at the time, was quoted as saying in a 2022 profile of Rono in The New York Times.

Instead, Rono headed off to Pullman, Washington, to compete for Washington State, even though he had never attended high school.

Far from home and locked in conflict with Kenyan athletic officials, Rono began drinking heavily even as he scaled athletic heights. He suffered further heartbreak when Kenya joined an U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Still, at a meet near Oslo, Norway, in 1981, he overcame a hangover to set a new world record in the 5,000-meter race.

But when Kenya finally returned to the Olympics, in Los Angeles in 1984, Rono was in no shape to represent his country. He was spiraling: His money from a contract with Nike, as well as his aura as a champion, drained away as he drifted around the United States, sleeping at friends’ houses and working menial jobs, including ringing a bell for the Salvation Army.

“I’ve been to the top of the highest mountain and then down to the bottom of the world,” he said in an interview for the 2008 yearbook of the governing body for track, the International Association of Athletics Federations, now World Athletics. “Looking back now, I can remember what happened in 1978, but then the next eight years are more or less a blank.”

He finally became sober in the late 1990s and returned to school, studying poetry and creative writing before writing his memoir. In 2019, he returned to Kenya for the first time since the 1980s, moving in with his brother on the same plot of land where they had grown up.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

Although he detailed his decades of turmoil in the 2008 interview, Rono refused to let the memories linger. At that point, he said he had been fulfilled in his work as a special-education teacher and coach in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“What I am doing in my life right now,” he said, “is like a gold medal to me.”

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