Before Elvin Kibet could enroll at Moi Girls High School, she was required to obtain two sets of school uniforms, a world atlas and an Oxford Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary.
“All I knew was Africa,” she says now, smiling at the long-ago memory. “The United States? I didn’t even know what it was.”
And then she looks at you and nods. True story.
Elvin Kibet is now an All-American. She runs for the NCAA’s No. 1-ranked women’s cross-country team.
On a good day, in her Nike running shoes, she is maybe 5 feet tall, but that’s the least of obstacles she overcame to become one of the leading distance runners in college sports.
Did you know Arizona has never won the Pac-12 women’s cross-country championship? Not in 27 years. On Saturday, Kibet and the Wildcats are favored to do so.
“I really believed she could be this good,” says UA coach James Li. “A lot can happen in four years.”
He is asked: Really?
“Really,” he confirms.
Li flew to Eldoret, Kenya, in December of 2009. Elvin Kibet was neither a runner nor on a recruiting map. Li evaluated her anyway, if for no other reason than her older sisters, Sylvia and Hilda, were once world-ranked distance runners.
Someone arranged an informal race, “a fairly unorganized time trial,” Kibet remembers, and the American coach clicked his stopwatch.
“We were all really slow,” says Kibet, “but I won.”
Li was in Kenya on the advice of his longtime pupil, Bernard Lagat, America’s top distance runner of the last 10 years, and would leave not with Elvin Kibet at the top of his list, but with future Arizona superstar Lawi Lalang, now a seven-time NCAA champion.
“Coach Li told me I had good mechanics and with proper training I had potential,” she says. “But when I ran that day, I was timed in about 10 minutes 40 seconds; he said I would have to get that down to nine minutes or so. I was like, ‘Forget it; I don’t think I’ll be going to the United States.’ ”
Elvin is one of 10 children of Peter and Grace Kibet. He is a forest ranger. The Kibets live in a rural setting with grandmas, nieces, nephews, cousins, Elvin’s twin sister, Ivey, and an array of farm animals.
The family has neither a washing machine nor a microwave oven. So the thought of catching a plane to Tucson, being paid to go to school, was almost preposterous. Elvin grew up working the land, taking care of the house and of her siblings.
But she wasn’t a runner. Not even close.
“We were a very disciplined family,” she says. “I was expected to get A’s in school and I did. We were expected to do the right thing. I do. Coach Li didn’t promise me anything, but I was determined to start running and do the best I could do.”
Six months after Li returned to Tucson, he sent Elvin an email.
“I believe in you,” he typed.
She got on a plane and flew from Kenya to Chicago, then Tucson. It was the adventure of a lifetime . She had never left home, never been on an airplane.
“When I was young I would look at the sky and see planes, wondering where they were going,” she says. “I never thought I would be the one looking out the window. Oh, it blew my mind. It was a dream come true.”
Now a 23-year-old junior with a 3.6 GPA in public health, Kibet’s rise to prominence has been unexpectedly quick. A year ago, she was sixth in the NCAA indoor 5,000-meter finals and 11th in the NCAA outdoor championships. Her team is undefeated this year, and along with Maria Larsson, Kayla Beattie, Nicci Corbin and Hanna Peterson, they have become The Team to Beat.
“Elvin has definitely lived up to her expectations,” says Li. “She wants to go further, beyond college, to be a professional. I think she can.”
Why stop now? That world atlas she took to the Moi Girls High School eight years ago has a practical application. She has run in Wisconsin, Arkansas, Minnesota, Kentucky. Her flight from home didn’t have a single destination.
“When I started running I would sometimes be miserable; it was rigorous,” she says. “But my brother would tell me, ‘Elvin, if you run faster, if you continue to get A’s and B’s, you will be invited to run in the United States.’
“He showed me the websites and I saw the names of many Kenyans who were running in the United States. He would say, ‘They pay you to go to school if you can run fast.’ I would say, ‘No, you’re kidding.’ And then when I ran I would say, ‘I don’t care how hard this is, I’m going to run faster.’ ”
Someday, after medical school, Kibet plans to return to Kenya and roll up her sleeves. She wants to help fight infectious diseases and HIV.
“It took me a while to figure it out,” she says. “I didn’t come here just to run fast.”