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Hellen Obiri: Boston Marathon winner on family sacrifice and quitting the track

As Hellen Obiri crossed the finish line to win this year's Boston Marathon, a few metres ahead was her daughter, Tania.

The double world champion was soon locked in an embrace with both her husband, Tom, and Tania as the family celebrated the surprise win in what was only her second marathon.

Speaking to BBC Sport Africa, Obiri found it all hard to describe.

"That was one good moment for me, at the finish line seeing my daughter. I cannot even explain what I felt."

The rush of emotion, which left Obiri in tears, is understandable when placed in the context of her decision to uproot her family and move them from Kenya to the United States after she quit track running to target the marathon.

"When switching to the road, I felt I needed a coach on the ground with me in training," the 33-year-old explained.

"On track you can train without a coach present and do well, but with the marathon sometimes you need a coach to watch what you are doing."

The Obiris' new home is in the city of Boulder, Colorado. But her husband and daughter only arrived a few weeks before the race in Boston. For months before that Obiri had been on her own.

'Why am I here?'

Previously a 5000m specialist who claimed world titles over the distance in 2017 and 2019, the 2018 Commonwealth title and Olympic silver medals in 2016 and 2020, Obiri made her marathon debut in New York last November.

Two months prior she had moved to the US to join her coach, retired American athlete Dathan Ritzenhein.

At the time, it meant leaving Tania and Tom back in Kenya waiting on their visas.

"It was a challenge because you don't have a family in the US. Sometimes the time difference (for) calling is not good. Maybe when you call the child is sleeping," she said.

"The most important thing is the family understands what you are going there to do, because it's a short career. The family give me a lot of time, support and a lot of encouragement."

But the pain of separation sometimes led Obiri to question her decision.

"She (Tania) was always telling me 'Mommy, I want you to come now'. When she tells you, you feel like crying, you feel you don't have morale.

"Why am I here and my baby's crying there?"

Despite her best efforts to remain focussed, New York did not go as planned as poor race tactics saw her finish sixth on her marathon debut.

"I used to run from the front in track races. I thought even in a marathon I can run in front. That cost me a lot because in marathon you can't do all the work for 42 kilometres," she admitted.

"What I learned from New York is patience, just wait for the right time so you can make a move."

Obiri proved to be a fast learner. With her family now watching on, she won her second marathon, taking more than four minutes off her time in New York.

"When you have your family around you, that means you don't have stress.

"You don't need to think about anything else. You are thinking about your family and the race and when your family is there to watch you, they give you a lot of encouragement."

Rocking life in Boulder

With the family now settled in their Colorado home, Tom has enrolled as a student. But Obiri worries about how a seven-year-old Kenyan girl will adjust to life in a different country.

"The first week was terrible for her because she didn't have friends here, it's a new environment," she said, fretting as any mother would.

"(But) Tania is so friendly. So after one week and a half, she was coming and telling mum 'I have some friends, this one and this one...'"

Obiri also had concerns when it came to Tania enrolling in school.

"I was so worried. I wondered, how will the teachers treat her as she's from Africa?

"Maybe some schoolmates will think 'You are from Africa, we don't want to be your friends.'

"I used to ask after school, 'Who wasn't nice to you? Do they treat you well?' and she said 'No, I'm okay with my friends and my teachers'."

Olympic agenda

The 2019 world cross country champion says not all of her friends understood her decision to uproot her family, but Obiri blocks out the "negative talk" to focus on her athletic ambitions and is also now at peace with her family situation.

Her next big mission, away from the six World Marathon Majors - which are Boston, New York, Chicago, London, Berlin and Tokyo - is to try to complete her list of global titles, filling the one very obvious hole in her list of achievements.

"I will work hard to be in the Kenya (marathon) team for Paris 2024."

"I have won gold medals in World Championships so I'm looking for Olympic gold. It is the only medal missing in my career."


(05/08/2023) Views: 689 ⚡AMP
by Sports Africa
Boston Marathon

Boston Marathon

Among the nation’s oldest athletic clubs, the B.A.A. was established in 1887, and, in 1896, more than half of the U.S. Olympic Team at the first modern games was composed of B.A.A. club members. The Olympic Games provided the inspiration for the first Boston Marathon, which culminated the B.A.A. Games on April 19, 1897. John J. McDermott emerged from a...


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