A trio of juniors lead Alabama Cross Country to Nationals

A trio of juniors lead Alabama Cross Country to Nationals
Photo courtesy of Alabama Athletics

Vincent Kiprop, Gilbert Kigen and Alfred Chelanga are practically inseparable. The three junior cross country runners live together, eat together and most importantly, run together. Therefore, it came as no surprise when the three friends and fellow teammates stood side by side, by side, after sweeping first, second and third place at the SEC Championships in late October.

Connected by a common background and united in pursuit of a mutual goal, Alabama’s top trio of runners share an inherent bond that has helped lead them farther this season than they’ve ever run before.

“Every run they’ve run stride for stride, every workout step for step,” Alabama head coach Dan Waters said. “They’re together all of the time. I don’t see one without the other.”

All three hailing from different parts of Kenya, Kiprop, Kigen and Chelanga each followed separate, yet similar paths that eventually led them to The University of Alabama. None of the runners began their collegiate careers competing for the Crimson Tide. Both Kiprop and Chelanga raced for separate Division II colleges before transferring to Alabama, while Kigen made his mark as one of the most decorated junior college runners of all time before joining Waters’ team in Tuscaloosa.

Since joining forces for the Crimson Tide, the three Kenyan-natives have been critical parts of each other’s development as runners.

“My teammates have truly helped me a lot,” Kigen said. “Some days when I’m not good, they try to push me. Sometimes when I’m good, I try to push them and that’s what has truly improved my running career.”

The trio’s willingness to motivate and help each other improve during training has paid dividends. All three were First Team All-SEC selections this year and each have registered multiple podium finishes. Kiprop was awarded the SEC Cross Country Men’s Runner of the Year after placing first at the SEC Championships, while Kigen and Chelanga finished second and third. By sweeping the podium, the three runners set the stage for Alabama to finish 2nd overall as a team, its highest finish since 2010.

Following up a historic performance at the SEC Championships, the trio paved the way for Alabama to finish third at the South Regional Championship hosted in Tuscaloosa last week, which helped the team qualify for the NCAA Championships that is being hosted in Louisville, Kentucky on Saturday. It is the first time since 2010 that Alabama will compete in the event.

Although Kiprop, Kigen and Chelanga have helped lead Alabama’s cross country team back to regional and national prominence, the three Kenyan-natives were recruited to the Capstone primarily for their undeniable abilities on the track, according to Waters.

“These guys were brought here because of what they can do on the track,” Waters said. “They are special athletes in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, they proved that last year.”

Once the trio started preparing for cross country season, however, they realized that they had the ability to resurrect the men’s cross country team and turn the team into a national contender.

“He [Waters] was really confident and he talked about the track team, putting together a stronger one compared to cross country,” Kiprop said. “But coming here we had to give it all every day. He really encourages us. He was optimistic about us and trusted in us in what we did every day and that always pushed us to going for this goal.”

Even though the trio is excited about what they can accomplish once the calendar flips to track season, they are laser focused on the possibility of leaving Louisville with a few shiny new medals to bolster their collections, along with a high overall team finish.

“This weekend I’m looking forward to finishing maybe in the top three,” Chelanga said. “It would be more exciting if all of us finish in the top three, but the goal is just to make sure that you’re in the top five and then maybe make top ten as a team.”

Regardless of where the trio finishes at the NCAA Championships, they will almost certainly be matching strides with one another on and off the track long after the season is over.

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