In an era where quality coaching at a very young age is considered to be a game changer and the top player’s entourage is almost has half–a-dozen strong, Kenyan javelin thrower Julius Yego has proved that determination, self-discipline and the hunger to learn can overcome any challenge.
The 2016 Rio Olympics silver medallist never really had a regular coach and support system in a country where, for generations, the only track and field talent found was in middle and long distance running.
And understandably Yego also dreamt of becoming a distance runner or a footballer while growing up in Cheptonon, a village in the Rift Valley of Kenya. But he soon realised that he was no good after being lapped in a 10,000m school race and decided to take up some other sport.
But in a country obsessed with running, taking up any other sport isn’t that easy.
“I used to watch the guys throw a wooden javelin at primary school and I had an inner feeling I could throw better [than them] if I tried,” Yego had told World Athletics soon after becoming the first Kenyan to clinch the Commonwealth Games javelin gold at Glasgow in 2014.
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He initially made wooden equipment by cutting tree branches into the shape of a javelin and soon began dominating the junior tournaments, setting a junior national record in 2006 while competing in running shoes.
However, excelling in a sport that had no legacy in the country had a major hurdle – lack of quality coaches. This is when Yego turned to YouTube. He began watching videos of Olympic champion Andreas Thorkildsen and 2007 world champion Tero Pitkamaki; he began making changes to his training regime accordingly.
“First time I was in YouTube is 2009, when I was now getting serious about training and I didn’t have a coach,” Yego told CNN. “Nobody was there for me to see if I was doing well or not, so I went to the cybercafe.”
And at 2011 All Africa Games, he shot into the limelight by becoming the first field athlete to win an event hailing from Kenya.
“They wanted to interview my coach to know what I did before the competitions, the championships. By then seriously I didn’t have a coach. I didn’t go with a coach. Then they asked me, ‘Who is your coach,’ and then I told them, ‘YouTube.’”
Then he added weight training sessions to his program and those efforts soon bore fruits. He bagged a bronze medal in the 2010 African Championships and finished seventh in the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
These performances opened the door for a training scholarship at the IAAF accredited centre in Finland under coach Petteri Piironen and his performance graph took a sudden upward turn.
The Kenya Police employee broke the national record thrice in 2012 and became the first javelin thrower from his country to not only qualify for the Olympics but also reached the finals of the London Games, finishing 12th.
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His hour of glory finally came in Glasgow, when despite suffering a groin injury in the warm up, he managed to hurl the javelin 83.87m to beat Olympic champion Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago. Yego had taken the lead after the third throw and decided not to attempt the next three due to the injury and thankfully no one managed to better his performance on the day.
He was crowned the world champion a year later in Beijing, with a season-best performance of 92.72m and came within striking distance of an Olympic gold in 2016.
The Kenyan was leading the field with a throw of 88.24 on his very first attempt. But disaster struck when he injured his ankle while attempting the fourth. He was in the medical room when Germany’s Thomas Rohler cleared a distance of 90.30m on his fifth attempt to relegate Yego to the second spot.
Yego is now keen on changing that script in Tokyo. He has had a difficult couple of years and is yet to qualify for the Games. But given his ability to overcome the absence of a coach, the lack of training facilities and various injuries, booking a berth for Tokyo shouldn’t be an impossible task for the 31-year-old.
If the Tokyo Games do take place in 2021, it would be interesting to see whether The YouTube Man, as he is known in Kenya, can script a fairy tale ending to his illustrious career.