Clara and Guenther: The foreign fans creating unbreakable bonds with Kenya's world beaters

Athletics fan Jordan Guenther with 1500m world record holder Faith Kipyegon at the 2023 Budapest World Championships. Kipyegon gifted him with a Kenyan kit. [Courtesy of Jordan Guenther]

They have become global ambassadors of Kenyan athletics, although still patriotic to their home countries.

Nothing separates Clara Pedersen, a Ugandan married in Denmark and American Jordan Guenther from America, and Kenyan athletes as well as athletics.

Their love for Kenyan athletes and athletics has remained unrivalled in recent years.

Clara and Guenther have become Kenya’s luminary fans and have led cheering squads in global championships where the country’s athletes have blitzed to glory in hotly contested races.

Her free services to athletes and cheering earned Clara an opportunity to manage elite athletes (42km and 21km) from their entry to exit.

From donning Kenyan national colours to receiving the nation’s world beaters in foreign cities and linking them to hotels and the country’s traditional food, the duo has displayed their fanatical oomph in special ways.

Clara and Guenther, although living on different continents, cap their enthusiasm with Kiswahili, a language they are learning to strengthen their bond with the country’s athletics stars.

But who is Clara, the woman in deep love with Kenyan and Ugandan athletics?

She was born Santa Clara Paco Cheptamoran in Kapchorwa, Uganda but lived in the Capital, Kampala.

The Ugandan-born Dane has earned admiration and trust but has also faced criticism from athletics fans who feel that she treasures Kenyan athletes more than their Ugandan counterparts.

Recently, she made her first visit to Kenya where she has a huge following among athletes.

Athletics fan Clara Pedersen at Kipchoge Keino Stadium on Tuesday, November 14, 2023. She was in Kenya for the first time, to meet athletes. [Stephen Rutto, Standard]

Clara arrived in the country on Sunday, November 12, 2023, and her first stop was in Eldoret, the City of Champions to what she described as a warm reception by dozens of online followers.

Her next stop on Monday was Iten, where she met tens of athletes and coaches on a chilly day.

“Sports took me to Denmark where I met my husband. I come from a sports-loving family. My late father and my mum are lovers of sports,” Clara, who was accompanied by his manager only identified as Mark, told Standard Sports in an exclusive interview in Iten.

The aura changed on her arrival in Iten. “It is my first time in Iten and Kenya. I am just humbled by the reception. Many athletes and social media fans recognised me even in darkness. Each one of them wants to host us.”

Clara’s father Nicholas Onegi P’Minga who died in March 2020 served as the Assistant General Secretary of the Uganda Olympic Committee (UOC).

The late P’Minga was remembered by Ugandans for his remarkable contribution to sports development in his country.

He was credited for introducing handball, cycling, dragon boat, and rowing among other Olympic disciplines during his tenure at UOC.

Clara’s mother is a retired Uganda Police official and Uganda Wild Life Authority ranger, who, according to her (Clara) was a sports enthusiast.

She went to Denmark for academic studies in 2008 and one year later she met her husband Andy Pedersen. She studied Sales and Management.

During that period, she served athletes during events before taking a break after the trauma that resulted from the loss of her son at birth in 2011.

When she returned to sports enthusiasm in 2019, Clara says, she has never stopped supporting track and road stars.

In 2019, when she revived her service to athletes, Denmark hosted the 43rd edition of the World Cross Country Championships, and Ugandan and Kenyan teams were in the list of favourites.

When teams from the two nations arrived, Clara recalls, they didn’t like Danish food.

Athletics fan Clara Pedersen (centre, in yellow) with Kenyan athletes Lilian Kasait, Margaret Kipkemboi, Peres Jepchirchir and Catherine Relin during the Road Running World Championships in Riga, Latvia on September 30, 2023. [Courtesy of Clara Pedersen and team]

Kenyan, Ugandan and Ethiopian athletes dominated the 2019 global show, with Hellen Obiri clinching the senior women’s 10km title, while Joshua Cheptegei took the gold medal in the men’s category.

That is when Clara got to the hearts of Kenyan and Ugandan athletes – through food.

She went out of her way to source ingredients for traditional food, and cooked and served the athletes.

“The athletes arrived but they didn’t like the food in Aarhus. There was no Ugali (a staple food in Kenya Uganda), beans and Sukuma Wiki (kales), and the athletes were unconfirmed with foreign foods. As a sports enthusiast I felt concerned and looked for corn flour and the other ingredients,” Clara remembers.

Clara said she spent her own money and contribution from Pedersen (her husband) to prepare the traditional food during the World Cross Country championships because it was her responsibility as an athletics enthusiast.

“It was then (during World Cross Country championships) that I discovered also that the Kenyan and Ugandan athletes encountered language barriers, challenging weather conditions, and cultural shocks at international championships.

During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, Clara’s free services to athletes were palpably felt.

During the period, a contingent of 12 Ugandan athletes including a coach was hit by travelling restrictions at Gdansk, Poland.

Three-time 10,000m world champion Joshua Cheptegei, world marathon champion Victor Kiplangat and Stephen Kissa were among the athletes who needed clearance. They had not taken their mandatory Covid-19 mandatory tests before leaving Poland.

Clara says she drove for 19 hours from Denmark to Gdansk to help the Ugandan big shots get cleared to travel out of Poland.

“I drove 19 hours from Denmark to Gdansk to meet the Ugandan athletes. When I arrived, I cooked and we ate together and they left for their hotels. At the airport, they were denied travel for not taking Covid-19 tests.

“That was when challenges started. Communication was in Polish and no one in the team understood the language. Covid-19 tests were done and confusion reigned during interpretation of the test results. Later, it became clear that two of the athletes in the Ugandan contingent had tested positive for Covid-19. We were chased away following the positive test.

“I had to book a hotel where the two (who tested positive for Covid) would be isolated and those who tested negative would wait for more tests before they were cleared to travel.

“It was the period Joshua Cheptegei broke records (5,000m and 10,000m). At the Airport, they were denied travel for not having taken Covid-19 tests.”

Clara said she had to spend days in Gdansk, sorting out the travel hitches.

Athletics fan Clara Pedersen with Kenyan 1500m world record holder Faith Kipyegon during the Road Running World Championships in Riga, Latvia on September 30, 2023. [Courtesy of Clara Pedersen and team]

She recalls calling World Athletics President Sebastian Coe and officials at the Ugandan Athletics Federation as she sought a hotel where athletes stayed amidst the Covid-19 scare.

Clara would later leave the athletes in the hotel after shopping for food. She returned later to take them to Amsterdam where they flew back to Uganda.

That is how she established her bond with Ugandan athletes.

In May 2021, Silesia Stadium in Chorzow City, Poland was the host of the World Relays championships, offering Clara an opportunity to bond with Kenyan athletes.

Kenya’s quartet of Mark Odhiambo, Mike Nyang’au, Elijah Mathew and Hesbon Ochieng won a silver medal in the 4x200m.

“During the World Relays Championships, I built my relationship with Kenyan athletes. I started learning Kiswahili as one way of bonding with them.

“It was after the Silesia action that I was taken to Copenhagen to manage athletes in both the full and half marathon. At times, I am invited to the Berlin Marathon and other races,” she says.

Her popularity in social media grew in 2021 and had to hire Mark as her manager.

She says the 2023 Budapest World Championships was her best moment. “I felt the Kenyan love in Budapest.”

Clara says she faces tough questions from Ugandan fans who demand answers on why she cheers athletes from other countries instead of favouring her country of birth.

“I take all African athletes as my brothers and sisters. I often tell critics that Ugandans are my brothers and sisters, Kenyans are my children and Ethiopians are my grandchildren,” she said in the interview.

She has been broadcasting on a Facebook page, city races, and global championships including the inaugural World Road Running Championships in Riga, after securing rights.

Guenther on the other hand has religiously cheered and bonded with Kenyan athletes.

The American citizen’s presence in the sport is felt in Kenya more than in the US, going by his close interactions with the country’s athletes.

His social media posts are full of praise for Kenyan athletes.

Like Clara, he buttresses his relationship with Kenyan athletes with the Swahili language.

He recently mastered the art of writing his posts in Kiswahili, perhaps to appeal to Kenyan athletes – a majority of them, his followers.

Guenther has been posting photos of him and Kenyan athletes at various events. Hours before the Chicago Marathon where Kelvin Kiptum shattered the Marathon world record in October, Guenther shared photos after enjoying dinner with Kenyan and Ugandan athletes.

“Dinner last night with Benson Kipruto and Ruth Chepngetich. They are the two defending champions at the Chicago Marathon. Two other notable Kenyans at our table of eight were Kelvin Kiptum and Joyciline Jepkosgei,” Guenther wrote.

He was gifted a Kenyan World Championship jersey by 1,500m and 5,000m champion Faith Kipyegon in August.

“After going to see the alpacas, I went up to greet a few Kenyan friends I’ve been spending time with, little did I know I would be surprised and Faith would be the one to open the door after knocking.

“I’ve seen her (Faith Kipyegon) run in person at five world championships, two Olympic Games, countless Diamond League meets, and other races over the past ten years,” said Guenther.

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By AFP 6 mins ago
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