Brother Colm O’Connell says it is a “tremendous honour” to receive an award from the Irish government for his work coaching athletes in Kenya.
The Catholic brother is among 11 recipients of this year’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award, which recognise the contributions of the Irish diaspora.
“It’s incredible and unbelievable that I should be selected,” O’Connell told BBC Sport Africa.
“It is the highest honour a person can get, especially people from the diaspora.
“I often wonder sometimes how somebody who lives in a remote village in Kenya can be singled out. It’s a tremendous honour and very, very special.”
A Catholic missionary in Iten
Originally from County Cork, Brother Colm’s association with Kenya began in 1976 when he joined the staff of St Patrick’s High School in Iten.
The school for boys, which was was set up by Irish missionaries and built on a hillside overlooking the Rift Valley, went on to establish a world-class track and field record.
Brother Colm’s first Olympic success came in 1988 when Peter Rono, then aged 21, became the youngest-ever winner of the 1500m at the Seoul Games.
Matthew Birir and Brimin Kipruto, both winners of the Olympic 3,000m steeplechase title, also worked under O’Connell.
He also developed female talent such as two-time world marathon champion Edna Kiplagat and former world 800m champions Janeth Jepkosgei and Eunice Sum.
“The coaching of Kenyan athletes, and particularly in the area of youth – identifying young talent and nurturing it – has been very much part of my aim right from the beginning,” he said.
“I think that’s one area I really came very far in. The success at the top level came as a progression from the young people that I was coaching.
“Maybe one of the most satisfactory things was the development of the women athletes in my group. That is something that I’m very proud of.
“I would like to think that, as a person working in Kenya, I had an impact on young people’s lives through athletics – using it to add value to young people’s lives, to give them a future, hope and values.”
‘My biggest satisfaction is the lives I’ve impacted’
Brother Colm, now in his early 70s, has found a balance between keeping his Irish roots alive and embracing life in Kenya, he says.
“I’ve always felt part of my Irish community, and I think that has been a strength to me because there is strength in diversity,” he said.
“I’ve always felt very encouraged by the support I’ve been given by my family and community in Ireland. And of course, I had a very high level of integration into the Kenyan community.
“That has played a huge role in helping me to reach the level [I have], between being Irish and being Kenyan.”
He previously received a coaching achievement award from World Athletics in 2019 and also has a street named after him in Iten.
“I have been recognized locally, and I appreciate that,” he added.
“But I didn’t come to Iten to find an achievement. In a sense, my biggest satisfaction is the athletes themselves and the people’s lives I have impacted.”
Brother Colm will be presented with the award by Irish President Michael D. Higgins at a ceremony on 2 December.
Interview with Brother Colm O’Connell by BBC Sport Africa’s Lynne Wachira.
KIS are delighted that Brother Colm O Connell has been awarded a Presidential Distinguished Service award by @PresidentIRL. His contribution to Kenyan Athletics is immeasurable. Well done Br Colm.@KenyaAthletics @AminaMohamedWTO @StateHouseKenya pic.twitter.com/gAaRERnBiB
— Kenya Irish Society (@kenirishsociety) October 23, 2021