AMES, Iowa – He could have been a volleyball player. He wanted to be a sprinter. Today, Iowa Stater Edward Kemboi is an All-American middle distance runner focused on becoming an All-American in the 800-meter run at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships for the second straight season. Kemboi will run in the NCAA semifinals of the 800 meters Wednesday at 6:15 p.m. at Drake Stadium.
Kemboi comes into the national collegiate championships with the nation’s fifth-fastest time this season, a 1:46.65 effort that gave him the 2012 Big 12 Championship title May 13 in Manhattan, Kan. The sophomore went from last to first in that race, using a devastating kick over the last 110 meters for his first conference crown. The late-race rush has become his calling card.
“I love the sprints and so late in the race I have relied on my kick,” Kemboi said. “It is fun running with the best guys. I will have to be focused on the top three guys.”
Kemboi grew up outside the village of Samutet in west central Kenya. His father Earnest Kogo was a mechanic and the youngest of nine children. His running talent surfaced early in an area of corn-growing homesteads.
“When I was 10 years old I competed in an age group competition and did well,” Kemboi said. “But I didn’t train a lot.”
Playing for Cheptil High School, about three miles from his home he focused on volleyball, which is a popular sport in Kenya.
“I loved playing the game,” Kemboi said. “I was a libero.”
The libero remains in the game at all times and is the only player not limited by rules of rotation. He usually replaces the middle blocker position when they rotate to the back row and never rotates to the front row himself. Kemboi loved the position.
“I am still pretty good,” Kemboi said.
Iowa State head track and field coach Corey Ihmels is aware of volleyball’s reach in Kenya.
“During Christmas break, because many international students don’t go home during Christmas break,”Ihmels said. “I organized a volleyball match with the Kenyans on one team vs. the rest of the squad. (The Kenyans) would kill us.”
In terms of running, Kemboi focused on running sprint races, especially the 400 meters. He cites a major advantage the sprints had for high schoolers at school.
“The distance runners worked out at 5 a.m.,” Kemboi said. “The sprinters worked out at 10 a.m.”
As time kept on ticking, his cousin’s sister Irene Jelagat, saw something special in Kemboi.
“When I was in seventh grade, Irene was telling me ‘you have to take running more seriously.’”
It didn’t happen right away. But then Kemboi met Wilson Kiprop, the 2010 IAAF Half Marathon champion and began to run with him.
“We would run mileage,” Kemboi said. “In Kenya, we don’t often run for a set distance. We instead run for an hour or for two hours and then judged how we did by how much ground we covered.”
Ihmels had seen Kemboi run and was intrigued.
“I thought he could be a very good runner,” Ihmels said “Did I think he would be as good as he is now? It’s hard to say.”
Kemboi has positioned himself as one of the nation’s top middle distance performers.
His kick is gaining him attention. Ihmels says his runner is a work in progress.
“He is very coachable,” Ihmels said. “Watching him run can make you very nervous but I have seen him learning more about tactics and implementing what we are doing in our training.”
Kemboi knows he must be ready Wednesday.
“A large portion of last year’s field is back this season,” Kemboi said. “It is going to be fun.”