The connections between the old coach and his young pupil are too obvious to ignore. Both University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) in USA, coach Paul Ereng and freshman Emmanuel Korir began their careers as 400-meter runners before moving up to the 800.
Both are Kenyans who came to the United States for college (Ereng starred at the University of Virginia). Both, at one point, ran faster than anyone in the history of the world (Ereng held the world indoor record for 800 meters from 1989-2000; Korir set a world indoor best of 1:14.97 for 600m on January 20, a mark subsequently bettered by American Cas Loxsom). And now they share a campus in the hills of West Texas.
One item they do not share is an Olympic gold medal, but to hear Ereng, tell it, that may not be the case permanently.
“I think he could be a world champion in the 800,” says Ereng, who surprisingly won both NCAAs and the Olympics as a freshman at UVA during his first year as an 800 runner in 1988.
Korir announced himself to American fans with two superlative performances in January — a world-leading 1:46.50 800 in Nashville on January 14 and that 1:14.97 600 in Albuquerque a week later — but his talent was clear to Ereng when he began recruiting Korir last summer.
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Jonah Koech, the UTEP second year who ran 1:46.53 last spring, had trained with the legendary Brother Colm O’Connell, coach of double Olympic champion David Rudisha, back in Kenya. Koech had heard that Korir, who is from a village just outside of Iten and went to the same high school as Rudisha, had begun working with Brother Colm and was interested in coming to the United States for college. Ereng took a visit to Kenya last June to check Korir out in-person and was reminded of himself.
“When I looked at him, he looked more explosive than most endurance event athletes,” Ereng says. “He looked more to me like a good 400-meter runner. I came from that kind of background myself as a young man so I thought, ‘I’ll see how this one goes.’”
Korir had only begun training for the 800 in April, but by May he had already qualified for the final of the Kenyan Championships, where he ran a personal best of 1:46.94 to take eighth. Ereng had seen enough to offer Korir a scholarship, and he came to the US in August 2016.
The first thing Ereng had to do once he began working with Korir was increase his mileage. Korir had spent most of his life as an athlete training as a 400 runner, and if he were to one day run the 800 at a high level, he needed to develop the endurance to survive preliminary rounds.
Until then, Korir will keep learning under Ereng, deepening the connection they already share.