Introducing Rodgers Kwemoi
We focus on the rising 21-year-old Kenyan, who earlier this year won Commonwealth 10,000m bronze and is a three-time winner of the Tilburg Ten Miles.
Inspired by Kenenisa
Raised by his grandmother in Mount Elgon – close to the Ugandan border – local running stars included the 2009 World 5000m bronze medallist James Kwalia and 2006 Commonwealth 10,000m champion Uganda’s Boniface Kiprop. However, Rodgers, the youngest of eight children, calls his inspiration the Ethiopian superstar and fellow NN Running Team athlete, Kenenisa Bekele.
“I was a huge fan of Kenenisa,” explains Rodgers. “I remember watching him compete at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (where he won the 5000m and 10,000m double) which gave me the motivation that one day I want to compete like him.”
Encouraged to first run by a fellow student, he made an immediate impact by winning his first race – a school 10,000m – at the age of 13.
Quickly making his mark both regionally and nationally it the motivational words of his relative Ronald Kwemoi – a 3:28.81 1500m runner – to join the Global Sports Communication management which proved a key moment in his career.
“I moved to Kaptagat in November 2013 and that is where I found my coach Richard Meto,” explains Rodgers, a keen supporter of Premier League Chelsea.
Rodgers is part of a training group which included the 2012 and 2016 Olympic marathon champions; Stephen Kiprotich and Eliud Kipchoge. Much on a whim and against coach’s orders in late-2014 he decided to enter a local cross country event in Eldoret.
“I asked Stephen if he would take me to the event, even though my coach, Richard Meto, did not want me to run because he did not think I was quite ready,” says Rodgers. “My coach was also at the event but I remember hiding behind other athletes at the start of the race so he would not see me! After 1km I took the lead and by 2km I held a 50m advantage before going on to win the race. Richard saw me after the race and said ‘I told you not to run’ before adding ‘I see that you are in good shape just continue’ (to compete in other races).”
Rodgers went on to secure a series of other domestic cross country successes that season before finishing fourth at the Kenyan Cross Country Trials to win selection to compete in the U20 race at the 2015 World Cross Country Championships in Guiyang.
Arriving in China prepared well by his coach and in “top shape” on the eve of the championship he suffered a problem with his back which compromised his efforts to produce his best. He finished a solid tenth in China – one place in front of his fellow NN Running teammate Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda – but was disappointed with his performance.
On his return to Africa he discussed the possibility of heading out to live and train in Japan.
“I’d seen other Kenyans travel out to live and train in Japan and it has improved their careers,” he explains. “The other benefit would be I’d earned money, it would offer financial security.”
World U20 qualification
Aged just 18 at the time, Rodgers found it difficult to adjust to the language barrier in his adopted home but under the training of his coach he excelled on the track.
In his first year in Japan, and despite training on his own, he posted personal best times of 13:28.62 and 27:42.09 for the 5000m and 10,000m respectively. Rodgers continued to improve in 2016 and after winning the 10,000m at the Kenyan Trials he secured selection for the World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz.
In Poland, Rodgers went on to achieve gold in a hard-fought race against Eritrea’s Aron Kifle and Uganda’s Jacob Kiplimo. He did so by posting a personal best of 27:25.23 – a remarkable achievement considering he was nursing a back and hamstring problem throughout the race.
“I tried to push after halfway but my hamstring would not allow me,” explains Rodgers, a keen fan of hip hop music. “I then waited until the final 200m but when I did go, I knew nobody would catch me. I was so happy to win my first gold medal.”
The road runner
Later that year he entered his first major road race and earned a memorable victory in the Tilburg Ten Miles event in the Netherlands.
Training up to 30-35km on his long runs, he comfortably coped with the demands of the event, edging John Langat in a sprint finish in 46:04.
It proved to Rodgers he had the ability to excel on the road and bolstered his confidence.
“I beat Abel Kirui (the former two-time World marathon champion and his NN Running training partner) that day and he offered his congratulations. I knew if I can beat a world champion, I will one day be on top,” he recalls.
Plagued by hamstring, back and stomach issues in 2017 limited his ability to produce his best but he managed to successfully win the 10,000m at the Kenyan Commonwealth Trials early this year to book his spot for Gold Coast.
With the persistent hamstring injury stubbornly refusing to disappear, Rodgers was unable to produce 100 per cent in the Commonwealth final. Yet despite this he still battled to the bronze medal – behind gold medallist Joshua Cheptegei and earn his first senior medal.
“The Commonwealth bronze medal was a highlight,” he explains. “It helped build my name from a junior to a senior athlete.”
King of the road?
Completing his final year in Japan in 2019 – he currently shares his time between Japan and Kenya – and the 10,000m Rodgers’ main focus for the 2020 Olympics he nonetheless views his future as a road runner.
“I feel very comfortable on the road and never feel my hamstring,” he says. “Long-term, I’d say I’m best suited to the marathon.”