Rather than be part of his high school’s sports programs, Stephen Sambu cleaned windows at the school. “That was the punishment,” he says now. “If you don’t run, you clean the windows.”

So he cleaned windows. He was 17.

It’s not that he didn’t get any exercise. He ran from his family’s farm to and from school, about five miles each way. Amazingly, he would also run home for lunch.

“It took about 30 minutes to run home and 30 minutes to run back to school,” he says. “I had 10 minutes to eat lunch. That’s what I did every day.”

A year later, after succumbing to a friend’s plea to stop cleaning windows and join the track team, Sambu had become a distance runner with a global reputation. Just like that. Overnight success story.

It was the summer of 2008 and it was time for Sambu to leave home. He was at the Eldoret airport — “scared,” he remembers, “very, very scared” — for the first airplane flight of his life.

He would fly from Kenya to Dubai to New York to St. Louis and then ride in a van to Rend Lake Community College in Ina, Ill.

“I felt so alone, I felt like going back home, but I couldn’t,” he says. Sambu would not go home for three years.

By then he had won eight NJCAA national championships. Twice he won the 5,000 meters and the 10,000 meters. He won two national cross country titles. He won NJCAA titles indoors, at 3,000 and 5,000 meters.

Did he ever lose a race?


Read this entire column in Wednesday's Arizona Daily Star.