Emmanuel Korir stood at the start of the 800m race lost in thought.
The Kenyan struggled to keep negative emotions from taking over.
It was the final of the World Championships in Oregon, another great moment in his track and field career.
It wasn’t his first grand championship final, but this one felt different. The Olympic champion came from a very dark place.
“A lot of things were swirling around in my head. It was really hard,” recalls Korir.
“It was like a trial in my life…people expected me to do something big after the Olympics. Something that will prove that I am the only Olympic champion.
Korir made his name in the history books by storming victory in Tokyo as the fourth Kenyan to win the 800m title at the Games.
Korir on injury: ‘The fight was real’
Instead, after a dream debut at the Olympics, he lost his form.
He had to deal with a calf injury, ran most of the season without sponsors, found himself isolated and depressed.
“The injury… and then the people I expected to encourage and support me celebrated (my misfortunes),” he revealed in an interview with Olympics.com.
After such a tumultuous start to the season, it was hard to step onto the track in Oregon and be stress-free.
In the July finals, the Kenyan managed to drive a modest first lap. With about 500m to go he was chasing the leaders as he had done for most of the season.
He regained his composure and passed leader Marco Arop, showing the world what Korir saw last season.
“The fight was real,” he recalls. “Fighting spirit … expecting something at the end, even though I didn’t know what might happen.”
Now he wants to make more athletics history in 2023 and beyond: become only the fourth athlete to win two gold medals at the World Championships.
Photo from 2022. Getty Images
Korir’s transformation from sprinter to 800m star
Korir’s first introduction to the sport was on the soccer field. He loved playing with his friends on gravel pitches. But growing up in Iten, a Kenyan city known for producing world-class runners, he was naturally pushed to the track.
His obsession with running peaked in 2011 when he started running the 100m.
Korir’s Sprint has been moved to St. Francis Kimuron, the same high school attended by David Rudisha. He hit the ground in the 200 m relay.
He put all his energy into sprint work, but his greatest desire was training under the supervision of a well-known athletics coach Colm O’Connell’s brother which was also based in Iten.
But there was a turnaround. The Irish-born coach, one of the most successful coaches in athletics who has been creating champions for over 40 years, has only worked with middle and long distance runners.
O’Connell, who was working with a group at the time that included his most successful athlete, two-time Olympic champion and world record holder in the 800m Rudisha convinced Korir to move on to the 400m.
“It was in 2013 when Willy Tarbei and I was a young athlete and that’s when I met Rudisha and joined them in training during the school holidays. The 400m run was really long for me, I was usually last or second to last, but I never gave up,” he said.
“One day Rudisha told me that if I tried to do something to reduce my weight, because I was huge at the time, I could become a good 800m runner.”
But the transition from the longer sprint to 800m took time. It wasn’t until Paul Ereng, Kenya’s first 800m Olympic champion from Seoul in 1988, that he fully transitioned to two-lap running.
The prospect of a fellowship at the University of Texas at El Paso, where Ereng leads the track and field team, further convinced him that the move was the right one.
A run of 1:46.94 in the 2016 Kenya Championships final earned him a ticket to the USA
“When I started running, it was hard for me. I remember in training sometimes I had to do 300m, 500m and 600m, and in the end I only did one 500m. It was hard! But I never gave up.”
Olympic champion on the ups and downs of the 2022 season
“Difficult” is also how Korir describes the first half of 2022.
An injury sustained in training in February forced him to leave the hall.
The two-time Diamond League winner did not manage to start his first race until May in Florida, where he finished third in the 400m.
He ran his first 800 m in June and managed to finish only sixth in Montreuil. The Diamond League circuit was also tough as he finished eighth in Rabat and fifth in Stockholm.
The 2017 NCAA indoor and outdoor champion chose to race the 400m at the Kenya Trials for the world championship because he had an 800m wildcard.
Korir, no stranger to the hectic seasons, had to conserve energy.
In 2017 and 2019, he failed to reach the final of the 800m World Championships. After his personal best of 1:42.05 at the London Olympic Stadium at the 2018 Muller Anniversary Games, he struggled with back problems and injuries sustained in a crash car park just outside Doha.
The 28-year-old managed to stay healthy in 2021, sealing his ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.
Korir felt he was on the verge of a breakthrough when he reached the 800m final, but the gold medal was “far away” for him, he thought.
“In the semi-final I climbed the line and I was lucky to make it to the final. After that race, I remember my roommate Fergusson Rotic telling me, “This title is yours, you will win it!” He was quite confident, I wasn’t.
• Emmanuel Korir wins the 800m race in Kenya 1-2
Surprise Olympic champion he had difficulty coping with the pressure of expectations.
Many thought maybe I never wanted to run, he thought.
“The people I expected to encourage and support me celebrated by saying, ‘We told you he was going to fail. It’s time for him to quit this game, he’s getting old.
“A lot of things were swirling around in my head. But I said to myself, “Focus. Only I will determine the direction in which I must go.'”
“I believed in myself and said I was still Emmanuel. God helped me, I am an Olympic champion and now a world champion…. many things are yet to come.”
2022 a lesson in patience for the world champion
His second consecutive world title gave him confidence. 2018 African Champion who holds the second-fastest time ever on Kenyan soil with a time of 44.21, just 0.03 seconds off the long-standing national 400m record Samson Kitur from Barcelona 1992, he is already plotting how to extend his championship streak.
“This year has taught me a lot of patience. I tried my previous tactic and failed. But there was a race in France, I came from behind, did the last 150 meters and won. I thought to try the same on worlds, it worked for the preliminaries, semis and finals. I was patient and it worked.”
“If I managed to win the world championship, then why not next year? It will be difficult, but I believe I can do it with the right training and good health. – Emmanuel Korir on defending his world title in 2023 in Budapest.
Now settled in Puma, Korir is relieved and happy that the difficult season is behind him. He is eager to get back to running fast.
Any comparison to Rudisha, the two-time world champion, is flattering, but he makes it clear that the analogy should not be extended further.
“I don’t train for 400m, it’s a short distance for me. I can’t even warm up. But I train hard on the 800. A lot of people tell me I have the speed to break the world record, but I also need stamina.
“Just running at 1:41 takes a long time. When people talk about comparing Emmanuel and Rudisha, we are two different people.
“Again, for the last two years, it was difficult for us to run 1:42 for 800 m, perhaps due to the closeness of the championship, so we did not have time to think about the world record.”
Indeed, American Donavan Brazier the gold medal winner time of 1:42.34 at the 2019 World Championships remains the fastest for three years.
“The world record is not easy; requires a plan… the 800m run is one of the toughest competitions,” he admitted sixth fastest man of all time, adding that he still has a lot of work ahead of him to get closer to Rudisha 1:40.91 A brand that has remained undefeated for a decade.
“I think next year I’d like to go 1:41, if I can keep the form where we can break the world record then it’s possible, nothing is impossible. It just needs the right plan.
“We have great athletes like Krop … but next year we will have the world championships and then the Olympics are just around the corner.”
But it’s not just about running fast, he’s also willing to help others and not let them go through what he’s done this season.
“I say to those who fight, never give up. Work hard, stay passionate and focused.
“We have a lot of good athletes who struggle and don’t have the support they need. There are those in Kenya who live on one meal a day. Some people turn to me, but I can’t really help everyone. In the future, I want to be one of those who can support or mentor athletes.”
Previously, Korir remains focused on fitness to be ready to fight anything that comes his way.
“Many things are yet to happen. I want to follow in the footsteps of Eliud Kipchoge. He really inspires us that no matter what age you can do it. There’s no such thing as you’re from this area, you don’t deserve it, or you’re not so-and-so.”