Joshua Cheptegei knows first-hand what it means to find the motivation to go on at your lowest as a runner.
Racing at home at the 2017 World Athletics Cross Country Championships, Cheptegei had led most of the race and was set to win a historic 10km men’s senior title for Uganda. Then with about a kilometre to go, Cheptegei fell apart as fatigue took over.
The then 20-year-old held on and finished in 30th position in an almost drunken stupor.
He could have quit the race and or even let that low moment define his career. But a simple change in his mindset helped him rise to break four world records, win Olympic gold, and claim multiple world titles.
“I’ve always had to convince my mind that, ‘you’re the best…You can do this!’”, Cheptegei told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview.
A difficult moment proved to be the turning point in his career.
“Sometimes you need such kind of self-talk where you reason with yourself.”
2014 Eugene: An Unforgettable World Junior experience for Cheptegei
Cheptegei has never doubted his ability. As a young boy from Kapchorwa in Eastern Uganda, an area that has produced some of the nation’s top runners including Stephen Kiprotich, the Olympic men's marathon champion from London 2012, he preferred football. Watching Kiprotich win gold at the Olympics motivated him further.
Two years later, at the 2014 World U20 Athletics Championships at Hayward Field in Oregon, he injected a hard pace for most of the 25-lap race to win Uganda’s second ever medal at the event. The Kenyans and Ethiopians were the primary favourites, but Cheptegei knew he had what it takes to succeed.
“I was confident that I was going to make it,” the shy fresh-faced teenager told the media in 2014 after his epic race.
It's a victory that still evokes warm memories.
“Eugene is a special place and will always have a very special place in my heart,” he told Olympics.com about the venue for the 2022 Track and Field World Championships.
“It was the place that launched me in distance running having won the world junior championships in 2014. I was a teenager, inexperienced but a young man with a lot of dreams.”
Cheptegei on bringing out his greatness
He stepped up to the seniors after taking the 2015 African Junior title and was one of his nation’s strong favourites at the Rio 2016 Olympics. He placed sixth in the 10,000m and eighth in the 5,000m. A year later he was Uganda’s best bet for the senior men’s cross-country world title on home soil but fell off the pace and staggered home in 30th.
Speaking to Olympics.com in April 2021 he said, “That race changed my mindset because I approached it in a very positive way. It gave me time to really think and see how blessed and gifted I am.
"I gave my all and I was able to understand and see that I am a strong man and that's why you can see a lot of records are falling. And so many records are yet to fall. It's only because of this race and that is Kampala."
Re-watching the 2017 cross- country race, including the video of his finish which went viral, powered him to his first senior men’s title at the World Cross-Country in Arhus.
“I always try to get positive energy within me. If I don't believe in myself then no one is going to believe in me,” he said on how quality talking to himself, motivates him to greatness.
After the cross-country achievement, he became a world champion in 2019 over the 10,000m and smashed four distance world records in a season disrupted by the pandemic. Adding Olympic gold and silver at the Tokyo 2020 Games in 2021 to his already impressive career haul, made him the most decorated Ugandan runner.
“Winning the gold in Tokyo was a very special moment in my life. It will always stay deep down in my heart.”
“When I won the 5,000m it's the only thing I was praying for, craving all those years. I used to see many guys become Olympic champions and making it to the world stage. It was something that I dreamt of and realizing it in Tokyo was a dream come true,” said the world record holder over 5000m and 10,000m.
Cheptegei took silver in the 10,000m at Tokyo, but went one better with gold at the start of the 2022 World Athletics championships, defending the title he had first won at Doha 2019. He's hot favourite to complete a double by winning the 5,000m on the final day in Eugene.
“I am able to win double gold, it will be phenomenal," he told Olympics.com before the event.
"If you look at the races everyone is strong now. But the best person to win is the one who is confident and believes in himself and ability.”
Read More: Joshua Cheptegei: Six things you didn't know
Giving back as he eyes Paris 2024
If he wins two world titles, he will become the first Ugandan to do so at the World Championships.
Cheptegei already added two gold medals to his collection from a championship, when he won the 5000m and 10,000m at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
“I've been dreaming of becoming not just a one-time champion, but a multiple champion. That's why when I win a title or I do something special, it launches me to another dimension.”
Cheptegei, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, is not only centred on personal track goals, but he’s also aware of how his athletics journey can help the next generation of runners in Uganda.
He dedicates his spare time to mentoring and supporting the training of young athletes through his foundation.
“It's a great feeling to mentor others more than even chasing for your own dream. I am a person who is passionate about running and I always want to stand out in the community as much as I stand out among runners,” he said of philanthropy efforts which combines education and sport.
“We spot and groom talent. The first fruits of it will be running at the 2022 World U20 Championships (1-6 August), where I also started my success. They are really inspired that they can become the next champions like me.”
Cheptegei won his 10,000m title at the worlds on the morning of Sunday 17 July. He then had a week to recover for the 5000m final on Sunday 24 July, the last day of Oregon22.
He’s more motivated than ever for more World Championship dominance, that he hopes will be the perfect build-up for his next Olympic chapter: Paris 2024.
“I hope that I can be able to replicate what I did in Tokyo and even more by winning a double gold. That would be phenomenal for me. Really special for me and my fans.”