Originally Published Dec. 4, 2007
By Jason Krump
To better appreciate who Bernard Lagat is, one only needs to know about his deeds at a 1999 track meet on a blustery April day at Mooberry Track in Pullman.
The Cougars were locked in a battle with longtime rival Oregon and Rick Sloan, the Washington State track and field head coach, along with his assistant and head cross country coach James Li, were in need of some help.
Heading into the final two running events, the 3000m and 4 x 400m relay, the two coaches determined that the meet's outcome was still very much up in the air.
With the issue in doubt, Sloan and Li looked to their senior middle-distance runner, Lagat, for assistance. Lagat had already won two events, the 800m and 1500m, and his day's work was thought to be completed.
The coaching pair knew that they needed Lagat to run the 3000m to secure the win, but after competing in two grueling events already, the question was would he be able, and want, to?
Running multiple events was nothing new for Lagat. In fact, less than a month earlier, he pulled off an unparalleled double on the sport's highest collegiate stage. At the NCAA Division I Indoor Track and Field Championships, Lagat won both the men's mile and the 3000m events with the luxury of only 90 minutes rest in between races. After turning in a lifetime best performance in the mile, Lagat returned to clock a personal best time in the 3000m.
But this meet at Mooberry Track wasn't in the controlled climate atmosphere of Indianapolis' RCA Dome; it was in conditions that would have been better suited for football, except for the fact, that because of an inch and a half of early morning snow, the Cougar football team cancelled a scheduled spring practice earlier that day.
As morning turned to afternoon, the snow had abated, but the cold still remained, as temperatures hovered in the 40s.
"I think that we are fortunate to have had Bernard Lagat at Washington State, not for his athletic accomplishments so much, certainly that is a huge factor for us, but for the person that he is and what he represents . . . he is a Cougar."
"He's over there with a stocking cap on, gloves, full sweats; he hasn't even started to warm-up or anything," Sloan remembers. "We called him over and said, `Do you think you will be able to run the 3000?' Without hesitation, he said, `Sure, no problem.' "
Lagat began to prepare, but there wasn't enough time available before the race to warm-up completely. So he started the event with his gloves and stocking cap on.
"He used the first part of the race to basically warm himself up more, and then took off the gloves and stocking cap during the race, and won quite handily," Sloan said.
Due in no small part to Lagat's unselfish act, the Cougars triumphed over Oregon. The experiences at the NCAA Indoor Championships and the Oregon dual meet served not only as a precursor to what Lagat would accomplish in the future but demonstrated the type of person he is.
"We asked him to do the third event, he said okay, and he went out and did it in grand fashion," Li said. "It really says a lot about him as a team player."
"I felt like it was my duty, running for the team; I was not even thinking twice, I am willing to do that for the team," Lagat said. "That is an experience when you double or triple. It is tough for the body but it gives you a learning experience. In order for you to be good at the professional level, running for college really helps a lot."
"Looking back, it was meets and races like that that really helped him develop stronger as an athlete," said Li, who has remained Lagat's coach to this day. "He is still benefiting from that today from those college days, running all those races."
Eight years later, those benefits manifested themselves in spectacular fashion.
World Champion; American Citizen
Coming into the 2007 World Track and Field Championships at Osaka, Japan, Lagat had been heartbreakingly close in years past to earning gold in major international competitions while running for his native country of Kenya.
At the 2000 Olympics, Lagat earned bronze in the 1500m, finishing just behind silver medalist Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco and fellow countryman Noah Ngeny who earned gold.
El Guerrouj and Lagat renewed acquaintances in the 1500m at the 2001 world championships with El Guerrouj besting Lagat by less than a half a second for the gold.
Three years later, at the 2004 Athens Games, Lagat faced off once again with El Guerrouj in the 1500m, and the pair engaged in a stirring duel down the stretch, but, once again, El Guerrouj was able to capture the gold, edging Lagat by .12 seconds.
Lagat's silver medal performance at Athens would be his last for Kenya in the Olympics.
"I wanted to be an American citizen because this is where I wanted to raise my family," Lagat said. "At the same time, I will not forget where I came from. I came from Kenya and I don't want to forget my roots. I wanted to go to the Olympics and represent Kenya for the last time."
By changing citizenships, Lagat was not eligible to compete in international competition for three years from the day since his last international competition running for Kenya, as mandated by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). Coincidentally, he became eligible the day of his first 1500m qualifying heat.
If Lagat was going to win that elusive gold, not only would he have to defeat a world-class field, he would have to beat history as no American had won an Olympic or world title in the 1500m since 1908 when Melvin Sheppard won Olympic gold.
As Lagat stood at the starting line for the 1500m final, the combination of returning to international competition, attempting to earn his first gold in a major international event, and most importantly, representing the United States for the first time, proved to be too much for the rest of the field to overcome. On this day, Lagat would not be denied gold.
"When I was doing warm-ups I had this fire in me," Lagat recalled. "I had waited for this for too long. I was almost emotional; even when I was running I had nothing in mind but do my best."
Utilizing a strong finishing kick, Lagat made his move from the outside over the final 100 meters and cruised across the finish line to become the first American in 99 years to capture a major international gold medal in the 1500m.
Just a day after his riveting 1500m win, and with gold, and history, secured, Lagat had to immediately turn his attention to his next event, the 5000m, and run in a qualifying heat.
Despite running three rounds of the 1500m plus one 5000m race, Lagat still had plenty of energy left in the 5000m final, and, by using a similar rally that propelled him to his 1500m win, Lagat captured the 5000m.
"We got a little lucky in that it turned out no one really wanted to race him or to contest him," Li said of the 5000m final. "It went out so slow for so long. He was really prepared that it was going to be something much, much tougher."
The win not only meant a personal double triumph for Lagat, it meant once again history, as he became the first athlete to ever capture gold in both the 1500m and 5000m at the world championships.
"You are looking at someone who is really so exceptionally talented," Li said of Lagat. "You got to have someone with the combination of the physical and mental traits of being a great runner, and having it all is really so rare. That's why not everyone is winning a world championship or even contesting to win the world championship. It definitely says a lot about him."
While the double was historic, it held additional meaning for Lagat because he achieved the remarkable feat while wearing an American uniform.
"Running for the U.S. for the first time in Osaka was unbelievable," Lagat said. "When I had thought about running in the U.S. uniform, I think about the red, white and blue, but once it become reality that you are in that jersey and I just won gold for America, there are no words that expressed what that meant to me.
"I always insist in giving back to America," Lagat added. "Running in Osaka and winning gold in the 1500, and then doubling that with gold in the 5000, that was the way I was saying thank you for the country that was supporting me."
It was an expression of gratitude to a country he first set foot in over a decade earlier, at Washington State University.
Lagat's ties to Washington State began through another WSU athlete, Eric Kamau.
Kamau had informed Li, who had recruited him from Kenya, about his training partner back home.
"After Eric came over to WSU, he told me about Bernard," Li said. "He said, `I have a friend who is a really good-looking runner, you ought to get him.' "
"What I took from Washington State is hard work; hard work in class and hard work in track and field. When you are there, you're not a long-distance runner, you are a Washington State track and field student-athlete. It was an amazing experience that I had there."
- Bernard Lagat
Li had several conversations on the phone with Lagat, who had just missed out in qualifying for the 1996 Olympics for Kenya.
Lagat had an option to run for Kenya and earn money in professional events, but he had other goals in mind.
"I've always followed my academics really well and I had good grades from high school," Lagat said. "I believed that in order for me to be somebody I would like to go to a university. I would have gone to be a professional but I wanted to pursue my academics. I didn't know much about America but I wanted to go to America to study.
"That is almost unreal thinking back home, especially with high school kids," Lagat added on living in America. "I dream of as a young boy in a village to go to a new place, which sometimes that doesn't become a reality. A lot of them dream of it but they never get to go. Mine became a reality through running."
"I think Bernard definitely had some other options but the connections he had with the athletes, and how comfortable they felt with me and with the school, that was the draw," Li said.
At the time Lagat first stepped foot on American soil, Li was traveling out of the country to Sydney, Australia. When he came back he learned of something disconcerting -- his new recruit had an injury.
"He went out running and ran too hard," Li said. "Before he arrived on campus he probably didn't really run for about two months. Then he came on campus, got excited, and ran with Eric and other runners. The first thing I heard when he came back from Sydney is this guy is hurt. He hurt his knee and he couldn't run a step for a couple of months."
Lagat barely trained, let alone ran in competition, as the fall cross country season progressed.
"We weren't even sure he would make it back," Li said. "I said to run on the track and as soon as the knee starts to hurt then you stop. So he jogged around the track for a couple of weeks."
When the 1996 Pac-10 Cross Country Championships arrived, Lagat was healthy enough to compete; and he ended up doing more than just competing, he finished seventh.
"Do you know how remarkable that is?" Li said of Lagat's Pac-10 finish, "I was shaking my head at and thinking this guy is scary; he hadn't trained for a good four months."
Lagat's performance at the Pac-10s would be his last for that fall. In order to rest his ailing knee, he would not compete again until the indoor track season. But his performance at the Pac-10s reaffirmed to Li the potential Lagat possessed.
"We knew he was going to be something special before he even arrived," Li said. "He almost made the Kenyan Olympic team in 1996 and knowing how competitive Kenya is as a country we knew we got someone who is going to be really good.
"But of course hearing how good he is, is different than actually watching him run," Li added. "At least for me, I did not watch him run for real until the Pac-10 Cross Country Championships."
Looking back, though it was frustrating at the time not being able to see his prized recruit compete, Li viewed the injury as something that served as a benefit to Lagat.
"In the long run that probably helped him in many ways," Li said. "It helped him to get through adversity and I think it helped him academically. This gave him more time to study. We all know for international students it is important to get acclimated academically."
Lagat's performance at the Pac-10 Cross Country Championships provided just a preview for what he would accomplish as a Cougar.
He earned All-American status 11 times as a Cougar, twice in cross country and nine times in track and field. In addition to his two indoor titles in 1999, which earned him NCAA Indoor Male Athlete of the Year accolades, he won the 5000m race at the NCAA Outdoor Championships that same year. In addition, he garnered four Pacific-10 Conference Championships and was named Men's Track and Field Co-Athlete of the Year in 1999. He was Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Male Athlete of the Year on three occasions.
In August of 1999, Lagat relinquished his final season of eligibility in cross country and indoor track to race in an IAAF Grand Prix Final. Because he was to be financially compensated at the meet, Lagat had to forego his scholarship in accordance with NCAA rules.
Though he would not wear the Cougar uniform again, Lagat has not really ever left WSU.
Lagat fulfilled his academic dreams when he returned and earned degrees in management information systems (2000) and decision science (2001), thereby becoming the first member of his family to earn a college degree.
And although it has been nearly a decade since he last donned the Cougar uniform, Lagat carries WSU with him always, and does not hesitate to credit his achievements back to his experiences at the school.
"One thing the success I've had can be attributed to coming to Washington State University," Lagat said. "What I took from Washington State is hard work; hard work in class and hard work in track and field."
"When I think about Washington State I attribute my entire success to running," Lagat added. "I started over there, having a place to run, having teammates that were supportive, Coach Sloan and Coach Li; having academic people that were supportive. When you are there, you're not a long-distance runner, you are a Washington State track and field student-athlete. It was an amazing experience that I had there."
At his home in Tucson, Ariz., one room is dedicated specifically to a certain school up north.
"I have a television room painted the colors of Washington State; crimson is my color of my TV room," said Lagat, whose wife, Gladys Tom is also a WSU graduate. The couple welcomed a son, Miika Kimutai Lagat, on January 12, 2006.
And while WSU remains with Bernard Lagat, his accomplishments, both on the track and off, have become a distinguished part of WSU.
"I think that we are fortunate to have had Bernard Lagat at Washington State, not for his athletic accomplishments so much, certainly that is a huge factor for us, but for the person that he is and what he represents," Sloan said. "He's a great role model for all Cougars, for young kids, for all runners. Everyone that he touches they're lucky to have that experience to be around Bernard Lagat. He is a Cougar."