EXCLUSIVE: The Untold Story of Brigid Kosgei; From Homelessness to World Champion

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Kenyan athlete Brigid Kosgei wrote a new history on Sunday October 13 when she clocked two hours, 14 minutes and four seconds in Chicago Marathon to break the record set by Paula Radcliffe in London 16 years ago.

It was a great moment as Radcliffe, whose record was broken by one minute and 21 seconds, was at the finish line to congratulate the little girl from Elgeyo Marakwet.

Apart from the  Chicago marathon history, Kosgei has won a number of global marathon races since 2015 when she started competing actively.

Her first international race was the 2015 Porto Marathon in Portugal, which she won in 2:47:59. The time wasn’t earth-shattering, by any means, but it provided Kosgei, then 21, with valuable experience and a taste for success.

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During the road running season the following April, Kosgei achieved her second marathon victory, winning the Milan Marathon in a huge PB of 2:27:45. Later that year, she reduced her best to 2:24:45 to finish second in Lisbon and ended 2016 with a victory at the Honolulu Marathon – a race her coach had won 20 years prior.

She took another big step up in 2017, finishing eighth at the Boston Marathon and second in Chicago in a PB of 2:20:22. She ended the year by retaining her Honolulu Marathon, smashing the course record with 2:22:15.

Kosgei’s progress continued through 2018 as she placed second at the London Marathon in 2:20:13 and then took almost two minutes off that PB with her 2:18:35 victory at the Chicago Marathon.

She has been undefeated in 2019, winning the Houston Half Marathon in a course record of 1:05:50, clocking a half marathon PB of 1:05:28 in Zallaq and winning the London Marathon in 2:18:20, another PB. She won at the Great North Run last month in 1:04:28, the fastest half marathon performance in history, although not eligible for record purposes given the downhill nature of the course.

But who is Brigid Kosgei?

She is from a humble background and a divorced family which forced her to live with her uncles the whole of her childhood before she got married.

Despite her huge earnings from athletics, she still manages to stay completely humble.

Brigid Kosgei’s matrimonial home in Elgeyo Marakwet. [Photo: Chrisphine Magak]

She likes putting on decent dresses while at home, and she is a staunch Roman Catholic Church member-explaining why her favourite music is anything gospel.

She is hard-working, a bit reserved, against media and surprisingly not a Kalenjin as many people think.

Her father David Wasike is a Luhya from Mount Elgon- Bungoma County while her mother Margaret Jelanga is a Kalenjin from Elgeyo Marakwet County. All her siblings still use their father’s name as surname Wasike.

About three months before her Chigago Marathon gong, we tried reaching her on phone. It failed, but it brought out a personality of a very humble person.

Brigid has left her phone charging. She’s out at the farm. I’ll let her know you called. I’m a shop attendant,” a voice from the other end replied.

This is Jane, a kiosk attendant telling us that Brigid Kosgei is in the farm and has left her phone to be charged at the shop. What a celebrity!

Brigid’s father David Wasike. [Photo: Chrisphine Magak]

The second day, at about lunch time, we make the call once more. This time round, Brigid picks, but she is in a noisy public vehicle. So we had to wait for about 30 minutes for her to alight before we conduct a short interview on phone.

She narrated to us about her untold family background, her love for athletics, and academic life.

“I’m the fourth born in a family of eight; five daughters and two sons; one of us died. I currently live in Chemulany where I am married but my siblings and mother live in Kapkelege,” she said.

She explains how she’s lived without a father for more than 20 years, and how she saw her mother suffering to raise their school fees.

“I’ve stayed with my mother and grandmother for about 20 years without a father. My parents separated, so we had to move to stay with wajomba,” she told Opera News on phone.

Brigid’s mother Margaret Jelanga. [Photo: Chrisphine Magak]

Brigid went to two primary schools-due to the switch caused by her parents’ separation, then proceeded with education up to Form three, courtesy of her great athletic skills.

“I started schooling at Sinon Primary School but I moved to Kipkundul Primary School when my parents separated. It is the nearest school from wajomba. Fortunately, due to my prowess in athletics at school level, I got a sponsor who paid my school fees until Form three-the level I reached when the sponsor got transfer from the region,” Brigid says, then the phone goes off-looks like the battery died.

So we decide to travel to Elgeyo Marakwet County for a sit-down with her and family.

One glaring thing in this part of the world is that there are no vehicles and the weather is always chilly. It is 1pm- a time you would expect scorching sunlight in Kisumu or Nairobi but here, everyone is in at least two jackets. And hot tea is served every 20 minutes.

The only tarmac road, the one built for the community recently, is clean and conspicuously long crisscrossing the valleys and hills. But the only means of transport here if you don’t have a personal car is bodaboda.

The first day, we arrive at Kimnai village from Iten town with a mission of tracing exactly where Brigid Kosgei lives.

After asking a few villagers here and there, we finally get limelight, but it’s already getting dark. Here, there are no reliable electricity supply-like on this day, the region experienced a blackout, and they say it would take even three weeks before the lights get back.

Brigid’s home-where she is married is at Chemulany. Together with her husband, they have built a nice well-fenced permanent home.

It looks new, and conspicuous on the hill. The roof is made of green tiles, with blue Roof edge. The wall is maroon-painted bricks, same colour as that on the sides of the black gate. Everything is unique, compared to other homes in the vicinity, except for fence which is a signature wooden with barbed wires across.

Besides the main house, there is an iron-sheet-made structure which looks like the servant quarters or rather where construction tools are kept. A pit latrine stands at the back of the main house.

We’re not allowed in because the husband is not home so we talk to him on phone and he is hesitant to meet us in the absence of her beloved wife Brigid Kosgei-she’s out of the country.

The house Brigid built for her mother. [Photo: Chrisphine Magak]

Brigid bought land at Kapkelege- a nearby village and started building a home for her mother. By the time we were visiting the place, there were already two mud-walled small cubes and a brick-walled main house on the side.

Inside the main house, wooden seats are neatly done. A Bible is on a table-placed in the middle of the room. The table is well covered by a white cloth. On the right-hand-side of the entrance door, is an opening heading to Margaret’s bedroom from where she fished the family album. All her kids and the ex-husband are captured in the album.

It’s a decent structure her mother, never imagined she could own in her life after they broke up with her husband.

“I was once married to David Wasike in Mount Elgon but we separated after I gave birth to eight children. My ex-husband is a Luhya. Even Brigid, who is my fourth born, was Brigid Wasike until she got married to Kosgei (Mathew).

“But I’ve really suffered. I didn’t have a house, so I took refuge in people’s homes because, in Kalenjin tradition, a woman can’t build a house in her father’s homestead,” the evidently religious 56-year old said.

The next day, we travel to Kipkindul, Brigid’s grandmother’s home. That afternoon, we meet David Yego, her uncle, looking after his cattle in a nearby forest-a larger part of Marakwet land is covered by forests. The rest is Irish potato plantation.

Potato trade is huge source of income here, and every young man wants a piece. This explains why most youth of the region, surprisingly don’t value athletics-despite the fact that the whole world knows the region for the sport.

We noticed that people from the Luhya community, especially the nearby Trans-Nzoia County, have moved to stay with the Marakwet in search of ‘vibarua’. They’re famous for their ability to offer casual labour in the expansive Irish potato lands of the Marakwet.

From the family album. Brigid Kosgei standing on the far left. [Photo: Chrisphine Magak]

A few have however bought and built houses in the region. It roughly explains why Margaret, Brigid’s mother met her husband Wasike.

David, the uncle, first recalls how he used to be a good athlete too before he sustained a nagging injury which forced him out of the sport. He narrates how he stayed with Brigid and her siblings.

According to him, Brigid grew up as a very respectful child. She was very disciplined and listened to every bit of instructions from the elderly.

“I realized that she liked athletics, while she was in Class 5, so I decided to guide her on what to do since I was also an active athlete by then. I used to wake her up for morning runs across the valley, and results were awesome. She won almost every competition she took part in while in Primary School,” he said.

“Brigid never ate anything special to boost her ability in athletics. Her favourite meals are potatoes, beef and ugali.”

Brigid, trains at Kapsait Athletics Camp, a few kilometres from her home. Notably, her sister Doracs Wasike, who is also an athlete, is pursuing a medicine course in the US, where she takes part in athletic competitions. Almost all her siblings have athletic blood.

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