INA – In his second year of high school in Kenya, Elkanah Kibet was handed a business card by a fellow student. It was an Auburn University business card for a cross country coach. He wrote the name and number down in his notebook, not thinking much of it at the time. Little did he know that, one day, meeting Auburn Head Cross Country Coach Pete Watson would mean Kibet’s dreams were coming true.
Dressed in a Tigers hoodie, the uber-successful sophomore distance runner at Rend Lake College signed his national letter of intent to Auburn on Wednesday. He was joined by a venerating RLC cross country coach Brent McLain and friend Vickie Simpson, the wife of RLC Board of Trustees Chairman Bill Simpson.
“Go Tigers,” the slim 24-year-old from Eldoret, Kenya softly said with a grin during an interview at the college. Yet, barely audible, there was a wild excitement in his eyes as he heard himself say those words. One could tell right then that he is well on his way to reaching his dreams.
“I think this is great,” the eight-time NJCAA All-American said.
He would like for some of his fellow Warriors to follow him to Auburn. He said the current 800M world record holder trained there. Auburn is currently ranked 14th in the NCAA Indoor Track and Field polls.
After Auburn, Kibet wants to run professionally. If he stays on track, he will have enough time after completing graduate school at AU to intensively train for marathon running at the 2012 Olympics. He wants to compete on the global marathon circuit.
His experience at RLC has been incredible, he said.
“First of all, it was incredible to learn the American system of education as a student here. I learned more English, became better at understanding the instructors and learned to live with the people of this community. It is going to be very easy for me to adapt there [at Auburn]. The classes I have taken at RLC will all transfer, so when I go there, I have taken enough classes for my major to start as a junior.”
He is not wasting any time. He said he will start this summer in order to finish with his bachelor’s degree and still have scholarship eligibility left when he begins graduate courses toward a master’s degree in business finance. According to Kibet, a master’s degree will make him highly marketable in Kenya and would qualify him to work in a government position. Another dream he has is to work as an agent of the United Nations, representing Kenya and making sure that assistance is available for his homeland, which is currently a place of revolution and bloodshed over accusations of electoral corruption by President Mwai Kibaki.
“As a UN agent, I will be able to assist countries like Kenya. I could be the first to speak on our behalf and get assistance.”
While a student at RLC, Kibet has been in good hands. He said the Simpsons have treated him like a son.
“They are very close to me,” Kibet said. “They have taken care of us like our parents. They have been good to us.”
Vickie Simpson said she first met Kibet at church.
“He was just the saddest looking thing you have ever seen,” she said. “He was so lonely. Times were hard on him. He wasn’t eating like he should have been. He wanted perfect grades and was concerned about his English.”
The problem wasn’t with Kibet’s reading skills. Before ever stepping foot in a classroom at RLC, he read every one of his textbooks from cover to cover and even went as far as to email one of the authors to tell him how much he liked the text. The problem was, when speaking to Americans – and no doubt Southern Illinois accents didn’t help much – the message was getting lost in translation.
Kibet couldn’t have found a better friend and tutor than Simpson, a teacher at Benton Grade School. She helped him improve his English speaking skills, showed him around the area and involved him in family functions – even her son’s wedding.
“Everything is was so wonderfully new to him,” she said. “He was as naive and precious as any human being you can imagine. And you realize how spoiled we are in this country when you look at Elkanah. ... But, in essence, he has more than all of us.”
She talked about his generosity, goodwill to others and spiritual dedication as a Catholic.
“Now we are celebrating,” she added. “He is going to Auburn and it is wonderful. I know that we will continue to be friends for the rest of our lives. I think he honestly has had more of an effect on me than I have had on him.”
Perhaps, but Kibet’s ability to succeed in the classroom was definitely impacted by his new friend. He currently has a perfect, 4.0 GPA at RLC and is a three-time NJCAA Academic All-American. He was told he could qualify for an academic scholarship to Auburn and wanted to pursue that in order to give one of his Warrior teammates a shot at the athletic scholarship to the university. However, according to Kibet, Watson advised against making that move.
“I think it is important that people know that, if you go to a community college, you are getting the same education as someone at a university,” Kibet said.
Located in Auburn, Ala., about 60 miles east of Montgomery, AU had a Fall 2007 enrollment of 24,137.
“The campus is very big,” Kibet said. “It was my dream to go to a big school and Auburn is one of the best.
“In high school, the principal told us that, if you wake up at 5:30 every morning and work hard all day, you will go to a university,” he added “I thought, this is great. So, I did and I knew I would go to a university. But, I did not know that I would be going to a university here. This is very great.”
He said the student who gave him the business card years ago was going to turn pro, but Kibet gave him another option. “I told him, ‘Don’t go professional. Go to school first.’” He is now running at a school in the U.S.
“If I see him, I will have to say to him, ‘Do you remember you gave me a business card?’ I would say thank you.”
Kibet’s accomplishments are continuing to pile up as a member of RLC’s Track and Field program. He will run next at the University of Arkansas’ Tyson Invitational, Feb. 16, in Fayetteville, Ark. His success at RLC so far includes:
• Eight-time NJCAA All-American – three times for indoor track, three for outdoor track and two for cross country.
• Third at the NJCAA Cross Country Championship, led team to its first-ever national championship as a Division I program.
• Led RLC to a Region XXIV Cross Country Championship as the individual men’s champion (Mt. Vernon)
• Set a new junior college course record of 23:14 at the Bradley University Open in cross country (Peoria)
• Won the NJCAA cross country field at Border Wars (Southern Illinois University - Edwardsville)
• Third place at Greater Louisville Classic in cross country (University of Louisville, Ky.)
• Set the best collegiate time in the country for the 3,000m and 5000M in indoor track with times of 8:09 and 14:13 at the Vanderbilt University Invitational. The records still hold up today.
• Back-to-back championships in 2006 and ‘07 at the University of Southern Indiana Stegemoller Classic in Evansville, Ind. In 2006, the team finished second. In 2007, they were champions.
• Set an outdoor track meet record at the Vanderbilt University Invitational with a time of 14:20.95 in the 5000M – blowing apart the 2004 record of 14:31.86.
• Finished fifth place, leading team to a second place finish at the Greater Louisville Classic.
• Finished second, leading team to second place at the Illinois Intercollegiate cross country meet (Bloomington)
• Finished fifth at the NJCAA Cross Country Championships, helping team to fourth
• Third in the 10K at the University of Arkansas Chile Pepper Festival
• Ran anchor for the Eastern Illinois University Mega Meet championship Distance Medley Relay team (Charleston)
• Won outdoor Regional Championships in 1500M and as part of the 4x800M relay team (Ina)
• Finished third in the 3,000m and 5000M, and fourth in the mile run at the NJCAA indoor track and field championships
• Finished fourth in the 4x800M relay, third in the 5000M, and third in 10000M at the NJCAA outdoor track and field championships
• Finished second in mile run at Indiana Relays (Indiana University Bloomington, Ind.) with time of 4:07.03
• 3rd in 3000m at Gladstein Invitational (Bloomington, Ind.) with time of 8:13.