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The rise and fall of veteran Kenyan athlete Henry Rono

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henry rono
Legendary Kenyan athlete Henry Rono. Photo/People Daily
  • Four-time Kenyan steeplechase world record holder Henry Rono is no more
  • He immigrated to the US in the mid-70s
  • Here, his journey with alcohol addiction took away his 30 years in America

Four-time Kenyan steeplechase world record holder Henry Rono may be no more but he leaves an enduring legacy and priceless lessons to active Kenyan athletes.

The legendary athlete broke not one but four world records in a row 81 days apart in 1978, something no other Kenyan athlete has done. Rono took his last breath on Thursday, February 15 and bid the world goodbye at 72. He was at the Nairobi Hospital where he was admitted for treatment 10 days ago.

WHAT HAPPENED TO HENRY RONO?

Rono had an undisclosed medical condition for a while. According to family sources, his condition deteriorated over 10 days ago and he was rushed to the Nairobi Hospital for treatment.  He battled alcohol addiction in his formative years and this cut short his stellar athletics career. His family hasn’t disclosed what he was ailing from.

WHO IS HENRY RONO?

henry rono

Henry Rono died at the age of 72 at the Nairobi Hospital. Photo/NBC News

Henry Rono is a legendary Kenyan steeplechase athlete who made history in 1978. He broke four world records in his middle-distance runs in just 81 days. His zeal and passion to outdo himself saw him break world records in 5,000m and 3,000m respectively at the Edmonton Commonwealth Games. He won gold medals for each of this, but he didn’t stop there.

The deceased bagged two more gold medals in 1978 after breaking world records in 10,000m and 3,000m steeplechase at the Algiers African Games. Rono would have won at least one gold medal if Kenya hadn’t boycotted two straight Olympic Games during his time. He set the standards for Kenyan athletes who have won big races in North American and Europe.

WAS HENRY RONO ADDICTED TO ALCOHOL?

Alcohol addiction was Rono’s biggest undoing in life. His impeccable career dwindled as he hit the brown bottle without a care in the world. He became a champion on the counter and not the tracks while in the US where he lived for 30 years after leaving Kenya in the mid-70s.

At the age of six, he lost of his father, in a tragic farm accident. Rono’s father operated a farm tractor and on this day, he bumped into a snake at the farm when ploughing. He jumped off from the tractor that was in motion and its rear spinning three discs cut him massively. He died on the spot.

This made life difficult for him and his siblings who had to depend on their mother. At one point, she wedded one of his sisters for a dowry of $5 (Ksh500) and it wasn’t enough. She resorted to selling illicit brew to survive. But, it was Kipchoge Keino who gave Henry Rono a reason to live after his victory in Mexico.

Rono, then a primary school lad, held onto the dream of doing what Keino did in Mexico by outrunning American athlete Jim Ryun in the 1,500m race.

henry rono

Henry Rono. Photo/sporting heroes

HOW DID HENRY RONO START HIS ATHLETICS CAREER?

Inspired by Keino’s accomplishments, Rono joined the Kenya Army to benefit from its organized sports program. It served as his haven for intense training. At the National Army championships in 1974, he broke Naftali Temu’s long-standing records in the 10,000-, 5000-, and 3,000-meter steeplechase events, demonstrating the quick effects of his effort.

He became the next heir of steeplechase as Keino and other veteran runners such as John Kurgat and Ben Jipcho approached retirement. In a past interview with a Kenyan based in the US Mukurima Muriuki, Rono recalled how his desire to win was so strong. He trained in heavy military boots and he suffered a ligament injury that took a year to heal.

WHAT MADE HENRY RONO INDULGE INTO ALCOHOL?

In 1976, he deserted Kenya Army and relocated from Kenya to enrol at Washington State University in the US. However, he quickly grew disheartened with his running coach, whom he felt belittled him as a person. Additionally, he struggled with homesickness and academic anxieties, feeling unprepared for university education due to his limited schooling in Kenya.

His long-held view to the day of his death is that he was accepted at the American University for his talent and not academics.

“I was accepted in America not because of academic prowess, but because of athletics. Look here, I failed. The program was not for academic dwarfs, but physically strong athletes,” he recounted.

This was his entry into the world of alcoholics. Rono turned to booze as an escape from the frustration he had to deal with. He would sip what he wanted to till the club closed.

henry rono

Henry Rono. Photo/Sporting Heroes

“Each day after my afternoon workout, I would head to the sauna to sweat out my body toxins and fats. After I got out of the sauna, my muscles felt relaxed and rejuvenated, but my throat and mouth were parched by a thirst so deep that I felt only beer could quench it…I would down pitcher after pitcher, quenching my thirst and washing my worries down with every glass until the bar closed at 2 A.M.”

Somehow, he still managed to break four world records in 1978 despite developing a drinking habit. Years later and as a celebrity athlete who rose against the odds to earn two university degrees, Rono lost it all to alcohol.

John Chaplin who coached Rono in the US when he studied at Washington State University sadly recalls how the once-decorated athlete changed. He would disappear for weeks after committing to participating in certain events and re-appear weeks later having gained so much weight.

Surprisingly, he would still perform brilliantly on the track but his chaotic lifestyle caught up with him and no race director invited him for events. All this while, he would be spending lavishly on alcohol and an expensive lifestyle and before he knew it, he was a carwash attendant.

Henry also worked as a baggage handler and an insurance sales broker in Boston US before returning to Kenya crestfallen in 2019. His 30 years in the US flew away and he had nothing to show for it.

Teresa is a journalist with years of experience in creating web content. She is a wanderlust at heart, but an outgoing sports writer with focus on tennis, athletics, football, motorsports and NBA.

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