By Tim Hipps
RIO DE JANEIRO — Spc. Paul Chelimo relied on the strength he developed as a Solder to get through the men’s 5,000-meter run at the Rio Olympic Games, where he eventually claimed the silver medal.
On the way to the medal race, Chelimo ran his personal best time of 13 minutes 19.54 seconds to win his qualifying heat Aug. 17. At the finals, Aug. 20, he pushed past that personal best by more than 15 seconds to finish runner-up to Great Britain’s Mo Farah in 13:03.94.
But his greatest challenge came moments after the race, when a NBC journalist informed him that he had been disqualified for lane infringement.
“Getting the news from the television reporter that I was disqualified, that was the most heartbreaking thing in my life,” said Chelimo, 25, a native of Iten, Kenya, who trains in Beaverton, Oregon as a Soldier in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program.
The race featured a lot of pushing, shoving and stumbling by numerous runners throughout, and came down to a frenetic sprint to the finish in the final 200 meters.
“It was really tactical two or three laps into the race with two Ethiopians trying to lead,” Chelimo said. “I was trying to stay in between them, but they wouldn’t let me. They kept pushing me and kept blocking me the whole time because they were working as a team.”
Once Farah had worked his way to the front, Chelimo knew he had to work his way out of the box or other runners could pass on the outside to collect the silver and bronze medals.
“I was the guy inside in lane one, the guy inside behind Mo Farah” Chelimo said. “I couldn’t stay there the whole time. I wanted to medal, too, so I had to look for position to get out and go into contention.”
During that process, track officials briefly disqualified Chelimo for stepping on the inside lane line, but the disqualification was overturned upon appeal, and Chelimo won his silver medal.
“They said it was infringement, but going back to what happened is people were pushing back and forth,” Chelimo explained.
The appeal process was the longest wait of his life, Chelimo said. Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning, who attended the games as a member of President Barack Obama’s U.S. Delegation to Brazil, said the entire delegation was pulling for Chelimo.
“I’m only here because of these Army Soldiers,” Fanning said. “That’s the reason I’m part of this delegation. But it was fun for the entire delegation to have an extra reason to cheer, not just for the United States but for the Army, so they were screaming loudly for him: ‘Who’s your Soldier? Who’s your Soldier?’”
One of the delegation members, four-time Olympian and six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee, believed all along that Chelimo would be reinstated.
“Pushing and shoving is a part of the sport,” Joyner-Kersee said. “That’s what you do, so I was glad to see our track and field federation was on it and got the protest in there. We prevailed, and I was glad to see him up on that podium.”
For Chelimo, now that the Olympics are over, his real work begins. As an Army Soldier and member of the World Class Athlete Program, he will take his medal on tour throughout the U.S. as a trainer and an inspiration to America’s youth.
The WCAP Soldier-Olympians, when not actively training or competing in international competitions, participate in recruiting and training missions. WCAP members recently visited Fort Gordon, Georgia where they assisted with the events at the local Best Warrior Competitions.
“We’re taking the skills and training that we learn in WCAP and teaching them to Soldiers,” said Sgt.1st Class Keith Sanderson, who competed in the rapid fire pistol event at Rio. “We show them how they can apply the lessons we’ve learned in competition to their daily jobs and to the war fighting effort.”
From nutrition to weight training to proper sleep patterns, the Soldier-Olympians remain ambassadors even after they return to their regular units and normal duties.
Liliana Ayalde, U.S. Ambassador of Brazil, said even she was impressed with Chelimo and urged him to “be a role model to let others know that it can be done with hard work, with training, with discipline.”
“Despite the obstacles, you just keep going,” Ayalde told Chelimo the morning after the race. “That takes a lot of mental preparation, and it says a lot about you.”
Chelimo said he was eager to fill that role.
“Especially with all the young high school kids, that’s my main focus right now,” Chelimo told Avalde. “I want to encourage and motivate all of the high school kids. I really want to motivate them and give them confidence…”
Maj. Dan Brown, coach of the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program distance runners, who sweated through the disqualification and reinstatement process along with everyone else, was not surprised by the outcome.
“I believed in my heart special things were going to happen,” Brown said, “and I’m so appreciative and thankful that it did come through. All the training paid off.”
“Hard work and perseverance works,” Chelimo agreed.