“Right on my door was Usain Bolt,” said Team USA’s 5,000m runner Paul Chelimo, conjuring his boyhood bedroom in Iten, Kenya, where he woke each day surrounded by the heroes he clipped out of the local newspapers. “Right over me was John Kibowen from the world championships [Edmonton 2001]. Next to him was Stephen Cherono [the Kenyan steeplechaser and world champion].”
“Tupac [Shakur] was on the other side of the room,” the good-natured Chelimo chuckled from his home in Colorado Springs, a day before boarding a plane for Japan where he would go on to medal in a second-straight Olympics.
At an early age, long before he moved to the United States and shocked the running world with a silver medal at Rio 2016, Chelimo had his sights set on greatness. “Those were just like decorations to me back then,” he said caught up in the memories of his birth country. “But looking back, these runners, and what they represented to me, were very, very important things.”
You go to war alone
Chelimo arrived in Brazil five years ago all by himself. Close with his large family, which includes siblings, his wife and a young daughter, he made a choice to go alone to his first Olympics. And this year, winning bronze as a defending silver medallist in the 5,000m event, he was on his own again. Not only because of COVID-19 protocols, but because that’s how he wanted it.
“You don’t go to war with the people you love,” said Chelimo, his two-year, seven-month-old daughter, aware her father was packing his bags for a work trip, calling out to him. “When you go to war, you go only with your full heart, your whole soul and ready to strike when it matters. If you go with the people you love, you’re always going to be looking back and worrying. I never want to be looking back at the starting line.”
Chelimo rarely looks back. Save a few nostalgic glances to his early life in Kenya, and the running royalty he tacked up on the walls around him, he’s fairly obsessed with the idea of progress. When his mother discouraged his running early in life, insisting he focus on his studies, he came to the United States on a full-ride scholarship, first to Shorter University in Georgia, and then to UNC Greensboro, where he could do both.
At Shorter, he won a national team title in the 5,000 and 10,000m before finishing second in 2012 and 2013 at the NCAA championships.
After that, in 2014, he joined the U.S. Army and its Elite Athlete Program. As a professional distance runner, he took bronze at worlds in 2017. And in Rio, after barely squeaking by at the U.S. team Trials, he made the Olympic silver medal his own (a first for the United States since 1964).
Bronze follow-up in Tokyo
This time, he went into the competition in Tokyo among the pre-race favourites. He won the U.S. Trials this June in Eugene, Oregon in classic Chelimo style. Hunted by Grant Fisher and Woody Kincaid in a race rife with clipping and chirping in a tight pack, Chelimo took the lead with under 100m to go and drifted all the way out into lane four to keep his pursuers, who are now his teammates, from getting past.
“I wanted the win. It was important to me,” he said of edging Kincaid and Fisher – who both race for the same Bowerman Track Club out of Portland, Oregon. The move wasn’t grounds for a disqualification, not by a long shot, but it was the kind imaginative running that comes with the experience of a 30-year-old veteran like Chelimo.
“That’s just how you race. It’s just smart racing,” said Fisher, who Chelimo grabbed and hugged after crossing the finish line first, as he did Kincaid, who added: “Hats off to Chelimo for running a smarter race – he made the right choice.”
And Chelimo – far from harbouring any bad blood – went on to see his role in the team in Japan as one of leader. “No matter what, I was going to go all the way down to the bottom of the well to win that race, even if I had to drift them into the stands,” Chelimo said with a smile. “When you become dominant, people are always going to try to take you down – and I love it because the more competitive it is for me, the more it helps me be ready for the big races.
“But at the finish line, that’s where the rivalry ends,” Chelimo was careful to add. “We join together and represent the United States. If I start hating on Fish and Kincaid at that stage, then I’m not fit to be part of Team USA. That’s one thing I always got from the military: You always have to be there for your battle buddies.”
Chelimo can be ruthless on the track, of that there’s no doubt. Off it, he lives his life with an open heart and a world-champion sense of humour. And the past few years have been trying times for this man who feels most at home out on the road pounding the asphalt.
A hard year off the track
“It’s not been easy, this last year,” he said, his voice going a little quiet as he enters difficult territory. “It’s not something you think is never going to happen. It doesn’t seem real.”
It’s not the pandemic that shook Chelimo – he took that in his stride as a way to break the grind of years of “back to back to back” racing. But the sudden death of his younger brother, Alberto, was a dagger straight through the heart.
“March 30th. March 30th,” Chelimo repeated the date. “I was on a run, a 12-mile run, and I was at mile-three and my sister calls me and she’s crying. She said ‘your brother is no more.’”
Chelimo called his wife to come pick him up, right there at the three-mile mark. He couldn’t go on. “I had to confirm that it was him,” he said, describing the helplessness and disbelief wound up in that moment of acute grief.
He hoped there had been an awful mistake. But when the reality set in, he started missing workouts. Chelimo couldn’t bring himself to get back out on the road. “But then I realised, ‘OK, this is an Olympic year’ and I started to get back into it, the running,” he said of the training that became a kind of therapy. “It became really good meditation for me at that point."
Chelimo, a member of the U.S. Armed Forces and a naturalised American citizen, speaks of his adoptive country with great pride and gratitude. “I’ve represented Kenya and I’ve represented the United States,” he said, showing a framed picture of himself as a young teenager, wearing the red track top of his native country, a medal hung around his neck and a huge smile on his face. “Without the United States, there would be no Paul Chelimo on the track.”
In Tokyo, with Team USA emblazoned across his chest and back, Chelimo only just managed a bronze to go with his Rio silver. He nearly fell at the line trying to fend off a challenge by Kipkorir Kimeli of Kenya. But he pushed himself over the line first to get on the podium in his second straight Olympic Games.
A future in the marathon
It’s not surprising that Chelimo has other races in mind -- and that he's looking to the future. “Never look back; always look only ahead,” he said, before outlining his running dreams for the next eight years. “You always have to think about the future. Never the past.”
“I tell all my friends,” Chelimo said, a sparkle in his eye, leaning in and licking his lips as if hatching a plan. “But Tokyo is just part of a progression to Paris 2024 and all the way to Los Angeles in 2028.”
That’s where Chelimo, on adoptive home soil, wants to compete in the marathon, following the path worn by Kenyan legend Eliud Kipchoge. He’ll be 38 years old if he can pull it off – and only a fool would doubt him.
“I feel like my future is in the marathon; you can’t stay on the track forever,” added Chelimo, looking, always and forever, to some horizon up ahead. “Tokyo will tell, it will help me see what I need to change and what needs to be adjusted heading forward.”