ON THE RUN - Stephen Sambu is pictured above in 2008, legging out the final stretch of his first national cross country championship. It was the first of 10 national championship performances as a Warrior at Rend Lake College, making him the most decorated student-athlete in the history of the college. The 21-year-old left RLC last week to move to Tucson where he will run on scholarship this coming Fall at the University of Arizona. CLICK HERE for a larger image.
Sambu holds up one of 10 national championship rings he earned as a Warrior at Rend Lake College. Just one national championship makes him an automatic inductee into the college's Hall of Fame in five years. CLICK HERE for a larger image.
INA, Ill. – On Friday, Rend Lake College said goodbye to its most decorated student-athlete in more than 40 years of Warrior athletics.
Stephen Sambu won his ninth and 10th individual national championships at RLC by taking first place in the outdoor track 5k and 10k on May 22, in Hutchinson, Kan. That makes Sambu the most decorated Warrior in history, with 10 national titles – a ring for each finger (and thumb!). He boarded a plane bound for Tucsan, Ariz., early Friday morning to start his career under Wildcats head coach James Li at the University of Arizona.
Sambu, 21, of Eldoret, Kenya, is a two-time NJCAA national cross country champion who led RLC to the team title last Fall. From the moment he won his first national cross country title in November of 2008, college coaches from across the country put a big target on his back. But with the pressure, Sambu thrived and went on to win every national race he entered except three – the indoor 3k and mile as a freshman, and this year in the indoor mile, in which he was runner-up. In addition to his two cross country crowns, he holds track and field championship hardware in the 2009 indoor 5k and outdoor 5k, 10k and 4x800 relay; and in the 2010 indoor 3k and 5k, and outdoor 5k and 10k. He was named Athlete of the Meet at the 2009 outdoor national championships.
His accomplishments at RLC go on and on. Earlier this year, Sambu set the national record in the indoor 5k. With a time of 13:51.59, he became the all-time fastest junior college 5k runner in history. It happened on Friday, Feb. 12, 2010 at the University of Arkansas Tyson Invitational.
In February, he signed a national letter of intent to run for the NCAA DI Arizona Wildcats this coming Fall. He said while it is an exciting adventure, he will miss everything about the place he has called home for more than two years.
“I don’t want to leave, but I can’t stay,” an emotional Sambu said last week at the college. “It is my time to leave. My last two years, I have enjoyed everything. Classes, the community, everything. [Former Warriors coach and athletic director Brent McLain] did a lot of things for me. He helped me a lot. I will not forget Vickie [Simpson] and Pastor Mark Minor and the family at Whittington Church. They took care of me. They are like our parents over here. I will never forget them.”
For every bit of quality he offers on the course, he shows even more excellence away from athletics. Sambu is a genuine, exceptional person who loves life and those closest to him. As a testament to that: One of his fingers won’t be wearing a national championship ring. He gave it to Brenda Moore, a custodian at the college. He said it was to show respect and appreciation for the way she looked out for him and his fellow Kenyan athletes while they worked alongside her as members of the part-time maintenance staff.
Moving from Kenya to Southern Illinois in 2008 wasn’t without difficulty. He had to adjust to living in a new place and worked hard to succeed in an American classroom. Last year, his cousin was gunned down by rebels while visiting Sambu’s aunt in Kenya.
“We don’t even know who killed him,” he said. “That really makes it hard to be gone. But I call. I call my mother and father every weekend or every two weeks. It is expensive for me to call every day.”
His accomplishments in the U.S., are a source of pride and happiness for his family, he said.
“They are very, very happy. I’m the only one here. They are very, very proud of me.”
He wants to run professionally after Arizona, but his focus now is on education first and athletics second, he said. His plan is to couple business management and economics degrees toward a career running his own business. He is also planning to visit Eldoret next December.
Sambu said he feels like he did what he came to do at RLC, which gives him a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.
“It really feels good. Everything in my two years in junior college has made me really happy. I have a lot of friends now.”
He knew some RLC student-athletes before arriving in 2008 – Peter Kiplagat, Julia Sambu (Texas A&M Corpus Christi), Lilian Lagat and Boaz Lalang (Adidas). But he became friends with many other Kenyan and American students while attending the college. Some Kenyan students he became friends with at RLC include Peter Sigilai (Tennessee), Dey Tuach Dey (Arkansas), Matthew Kotut (Texas A&M Pan-American), Ben Cheruiyot (Auburn), Elkanah Kibet (Auburn) and Robert Kapsoiyo.
Sambu was discovered while at Biwott Secondary school in 2006. He was training at his brother’s running camp for women. After being noticed by recruiters, Sambu was asked if he wanted to go to school in the U.S., on a running scholarship. He quickly relocated to a training camp where student-athletes go through time trials. It only took him one 5k to qualify for an athletic scholarship in the states.
If it hadn’t been for a communication problem with the U.S. embassy and another community college Sambu had been accepted to, he may have never became a Warrior. He left the embassy, unsure of what had happened, but was soon contacted by RLC’s Kibet, Lalang and McLain who convinced Sambu to enroll at RLC.
Forecasted state funding shortfalls for RLC next year are endangering the possibilities of other Kenyan athletes following in Sambu’s footsteps. Already the college has been compelled to put a hold on future scholarships for international student-athletes.
RLC President Charley D. Holstein commented on the situation, calling it a “one-year moratorium” on international recruiting at RLC in response to forecasted shortfalls in state funding and the overall number of international athletes at the college.
“I hope that will change,” Sambu said. “There are a lot of students who want to come to America. In Kenya, there are a lot of guys like me. They can run like me. It’s not good if they don’t get the chance to get an education the way we have. If they get the chance to come to Rend Lake or another school, they know it’s a once in a lifetime chance.”
“With few exceptions, our international athletes have contributed significantly to our athletic programs, have excelled academically, and have been contributing members of our communities,” Holstein said. “Beyond their athletic prowess and academic excellence, they bring cultural diversity which, from my experience, they are more than willing to share with their fellow students and fellow community members alike.”
Sambu graduated this Spring with his associate degrees in arts and science. Last week, he learned that being a national champion gets him an automatic induction into RLC’s Hall of Fame in five years. He’ll be on the hook for a homecoming at his alma mater around 2013.
“That feels great,” he said. “I feel honored.”
For all things athletic at RLC, visit the college online at www.rlc.edu/warriors.