When Faith and belief join forces over 1500m

Kipyegon has already cemented her legacy as the best female runner in the history of the metric mile. If she fulfils her remaining ambitions, she will figure prominently in the conversation about the greatest athletes ever

Kipyegon has already cemented her legacy as the best female runner in the history of the metric mile. If she fulfils her remaining ambitions, she will figure prominently in the conversation about the greatest athletes ever

If there was any dispute about Faith Kipyegon’s claim to being the greatest women’s 1500m runner of all time, her performances over the last two months should have banished it.

No woman before July 2022 had won two Olympic and two World titles over that distance. But Kipyegon — Olympic champion at Rio in 2016 and Tokyo in 2021, as well as World champion at London in 2017 — mastered the competition at Eugene, Oregon, to make history.

Although Sifan Hassan — the only woman to have beaten the Kenyan over 1500m since the start of 2017 — opted out to focus on the distance double (5000m-10,000m), it was still a strong field. Kipyegon finished in an impressive time of 3:52.96 to regain her World crown.

“I was facing a lot of pressure,” Kipyegon said after winning her fourth Major gold. “Everybody was expecting something special from me. Everybody was like, ‘Faith, we believe in Faith,’ so it was real pressure. But I managed it. This was my big target. I was really looking forward to this championship. I was really, really prepared for this race.”

World record attempt

As if that weren’t enough, the 28-year-old travelled to Monaco last month for the Diamond League and threatened the world record; she was just three tenths of a second off. 

Having twice clocked three-minute, 52-second runs in 2022, Kipyegon was primed for an attack on Genzebe Dibaba’s world record of 3:50.07, set in 2015 at the same venue: Stade Louis II. The 5’2” runner narrowly missed out, stopping the watch at 3:50.37, but leaving the impression that establishing a new mark was a matter of when not if.

“I have been chasing [the record] for quite some time, but I am happy with the personal best,” Kipyegon told the organisers in Monaco. “It seems I did not give [it my] all, but I tried hard. I knew this was the best place to get the world record, but I am so disappointed I lost it in the last metres. I hope for the best next time.”

Although she doesn’t have the world record — yet — there’s no doubting Kipyegon’s dominance of the marquee middle distance event. 

The sheer consistency of her brilliance is staggering. She is the only woman in history to have run eight 1500m races under 3:55.0. She also owns six of the 13 fastest times ever, including two of the top five (second and fifth).

The Dibaba due

And while Kipyegon may not have bettered Dibaba’s best-ever time, she had the measure of her Ethiopian rival when they went head-to-head on the biggest stage of all: the Olympics.

Dibaba had beaten a raw, 21-year-old Kipyegon at the 2015 Worlds. She was the favourite for the 2016 Games, with experts reasoning that the 25-year-old had the pedigree and experience. 

But Kipyegon had other ideas. She sat in a pack that virtually jogged the opening stages before she and Dibaba pulled clear around the halfway mark. Dibaba led with 200 to go but her diminutive opponent unleashed a devastating burst that left the world record holder trailing in her wake. Kipyegon won in 4:08.92, over Dibaba (4:10.27).

“It was an amazing race,” Kipyegon said after her first Olympic gold. “I needed to focus for the middle because I knew Genzebe is so fast and I really had to kick on the last lap.”

It was the young Kenyan’s breakout moment on the world stage, a precursor of things to come. In 2017, she added the World title to her Olympic crown after sprinting to a thrilling victory in a fantastic race that erupted on the final lap. Kipyegon held off all-comers (including Caster Semenya, who was hunting an 800m-1500m double) down the home straight to clock 4:02.59.

Inspiring young mothers

But the most impressive of Kipyegon’s runs on the big stage wasn’t a gold medal. At the 2019 Worlds in Doha, she took silver in her first Major event after a 21-month maternity break. “I came back after giving birth and I feel like a role model for the young mothers out there and the young athletes,” she told World Athletics. “I hope to show them that when you go for maternity leave, this does not mean the end of your career. You can come back strong.”

Kipyegon has only grown from strength to strength since then. In Tokyo last year, she defended her Olympic crown in 3:53.11, bettering the Games record that had stood for 33 years. She became only the second woman, after Tatyana Kazankina (1976 and 1980), to win back-to-back Olympic titles in the metric mile. 

Kipyegon said after the race that knowing her daughter would be watching spurred her on during the final 200m. “I knew I had to do something for her,” she said after the triumph.

Indeed, her daughter Alyn, born in 2018, is a strong source of motivation for Kipyegon. “The biggest difference she made in my life was in my mindset,” Kipyegon wrote in SPIKES magazine, detailing her journey back to competitive running after childbirth. “She gave me motivation in my career to provide what she needs in future — education and other things. She made me want to work really hard.”

Coming full circle

Life seems to have come full circle for Kipyegon, in terms of inspiration. Growing up on a farm in the Kenyan Rift Valley, running was an ever-present theme: her father Samuel Koech had been a promising athlete at the national level. “My father was a good 800m and 1500m runner but unfortunately, he never boarded a plane. He would only win his races up to nationals and go back home as there were no big competitions like we have these days,” Kipyegon said.

She and older sister Beatrice Mutai (a 10km and half-marathon athlete) did, however, board planes to have a taste of international competition. Indeed, in her early days travelling the world, Kipyegon ran barefoot in cross country championships. 

She has come a long way since then and is now surrounded by some of the best distance runners at the famous Kaptagat training camp in Kenya’s Eldoret region under revered athletics coach Patrick Sang. Eliud Kipchoge, the greatest marathoner of all time, is a training mate. 

Like Kipchoge, Kipyegon is a legend in her athletic lifetime. And she isn’t done yet. She still has ambitions in the 1500m, but she is also seeking a new running challenge. “For now, I’m looking forward to the 2024 Olympics [in Paris], I want to defend my [1500m] title before maybe shifting to 5000m,” she said in an interview with the Olympic Channel.

A third Olympic title will be an astonishing feat — that and the 1500m world record will place her right at the top of conversations about the greatest athletes of all time. Given her talent and drive, don’t be surprised if she continues to add to an already creaking medal cabinet and then purchases another storage unit for the medals she intends to win in the 5000m.