Country: Kenya

Profession: Athlete – 800m

Career highlights:

  • 2012 and 2016 Olympic champion
  • 2011 and 2015 World Champion
  • 800m world record holder (1:40.91)
  • 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medallist
  • 2010 African Championships gold medallist
  • 2010 Continental Cup gold medallist
  • 2008 African Championships gold medallist

David became World Junior champion in the 800m at his first international competition representing Kenya at the 2006 Beijing World Junior Championships. What followed was a 10 year dominance of the distance, including multiple gold medals at the African Championships and World Championships.

His father Daniel was silver medallist at the 1968 Olympics in the 4×400m relay and his mother Naomi is a former 400 m hurdler. David is coached by Brother Colm O’Connell, who has been coaching him since he was 15 years old and encouraged the youngster to switch from 400m to 800m. However, he has not raced competitively in four years due to injuries and struggling to rediscover his form after surgery on an ankle fracture.

David was IAAF World Athlete of the Year award in 2010 and has won a record three consecutive Track & Field Athlete of the Year Awards (2010- 2012).  

Can you describe the perfect 800m race?

Although I have run so many 800m’s, for me one of the perfect races was the final at the London Olympics where I broke my world record and I won Olympic gold. The race was commended by Sebastian Coe as magnificent! I say it was the greatest because I started well right from the beginning and closed the first lap in 49s, pushed in the next 200m crossing the 600m mark in 1:14 and coming home in 1.40.91 for the WR. That was one of the greatest races, not only just for winning but everyone’s performance on the track – everyone came home with Personal Best’s, National records, and junior records.

The 800m is a tough race, what goes through your mind in the last part of the race when it begins to hurt?

Running is about physical and mental strength, that combination helps give you good judgment about the competition and the time you are going to run. In my case, what I used to do was calculate my splits – that was most important. The first 200m is always challenging because everybody is strong and going fast, then trying to maintain pace from 200m- 400m is a fine balance. That first lap for me was something like 49/50s flat. The next 200m is where some lactic acid starts to build up, this is where you need to feel your body and focus on maintaining the rhythm. But the last 200m is where you just give everything you have and hold on!

What is one of your favourite training sessions?

I used to be a sprint athlete doing 400m, and so I never really liked long training sessions. But for 800m you have to spend a lot of time training on the track and my favourite track session was doing 300m’s, that is where is used to get my rhythm for the 800m.  

You have been open about mental health struggles over the past few years – what more do you feel needs to be done in athletics to better support athletes in this area?

Sport is a profession and just like any other profession and you have to be able to manage yourself well. Especially from the pressures outside the track. There are always a lot of expectations of others that you need to deal with, and you find that people don’t understand the things athletes go through.  For example, when you get injured and are not able to train or compete, people don’t understand and will often ask you “Why are you not running? Have you retired?”. Everyone wants to know what is happening!

Athletes need to learn how to cope with and manage these situations. Of course, it is difficult, but you just try handle things and manage to the best of your abilities.

All in all, athletics is a very short career and that is something you should be aware of as an athlete and learn find ways to relate to people and situations outside of the track because that is what is important in life.   

The Tokyo Games highlighted the pressure elite athletes are under, and the difficulty of coping with the expectation of others. How did you manage the pressure and expectation during your career?

As an athlete nothing comes easy and the most important thing to know is that your mental strength plays a very big role in performance. My coach used to tell me ‘It is more than the fast legs that make you a successful athlete, mental health is also important’.

Then the discipline you display is very important, that is the way I have tried to handle most of my lifestyle outside the sport. Discipline and understanding are the most important. At the end of the day, we are human, and sometimes athletes forget that we are part of the community just like any other person. When outside the sport be humble and don’t go about saying “I am an Olympic Champion”.  Whoever recognises you because of your achievements, well and good, and we appreciate that. But I say just take things easy, be humble and life will be good.   

Who has been your ‘worthy rival’ in the 800m and why?

I had so many rivals over the years! I first represented Kenya at the 2006 World Junior Championships in Beijing, and the athletes there were the ones I grew up with over the course of my career. One that stands out is the Sudanese runner Abubaker Kaki. He was my greatest rival for some time. I remember when I ran 1:42.04 in Olso back in 2010, we were neck-to- neck, and it was one of our toughest races. I will never forget the race because by the time I got to the last 100m I could feel him right behind me and the pace was very fast and it felt like my legs were not moving. I was able to hold on to the end, that was fantastic. He gave me a lot of sleepless nights…hahaha…. whenever we were in the same competition, I was always thinking how the race is going to be!

Of course, there have been others who came after him like Mohamed Aman from Ethiopia and Nijel Amos from Botswana. I have been around for some time and have raced with athletes from different generations and each have provided good competition.

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