Take one part Missouri Southern State University, one part Shorter University, mix it in with Central Arizona College, and you’ll have the formula for an Alabama cross country team that is making its first team appearance at the NCAA Men’s Cross Country Championships since 2010.
Alfred Chelanga, Gilbert Kigen, and Vincent Kiprop had very different paths to Alabama, however, they have so much in common. It’s one of the most unique team combinations in the sport.
The three juniors all made their way to the United States from Kenya, and they ended up in Tuscaloosa as transfers from lower-level collegiate programs. They used to be competitors, but now the group lives as a unit, runs as a unit, and often stands together on the podium.
“They are inseparable,” coach Dan Waters said. “Every run they’ve run stride-for-stride, every workout step-for-step. They have an apartment together. They live together. … They are, seriously, together all the time. I don’t see one without the others.”
Chelanga, Kigen and Kiprop swept the top three spots at the SEC Championships in October, and finished first, second and fourth at the South Regional last week. The latest postseason effort was enough to qualify each runner individually for the NCAA Championships on Saturday in Louisville, Kentucky, and it also earned the Crimson Tide men an at-large selection to compete as a team.
The scenario would never have been possible had the three highly-sought transfers not bought Waters’ pitch. Kiprop and Chelanga were the top-two finishers at the Division II Championships in 2016, and Kigen, the most decorated junior college runner in NJCAA history, won two individual cross country titles before transferring to the Crimson Tide. They liked the idea of running together.
Getting a head start on his two teammates was Chelanga, who transferred to Alabama in January and had an extra semester of training.
“For me, it was a process,” Kiprop said. “(Chelanga) was here before, and he talked to me about transferring here. So, I asked my coach back at (Missouri Southern State University) to come and visit. Coach talked to me about the program, and I liked it. When I heard that we were also going to team up with (Kigen), I knew we were going to build something.”
Now as a unit, the three runners have used each other to improve individually. Before reaching the Division I ranks, the level of competition in practice was not nearly as strong.
“On days when I’m not good they try to push me,” Kigen said. “On days when they are not good, I try to push them, and that’s what has really improved my running.”
Their nationality plays a factor in that as well. With all three being from Kenya, they take a lot of pride in continuing to build their country’s rich history in running. It’s just another reason they hold each other accountable.
“Being from Kenya, I think it’s an advantage because people believe that we are talented,” Chelanga said. “We always have to show what we have on the field, and make sure that we are not beaten by Americans or people from other countries. We have to be at the top always.”
The three Kenyan runners had a major impact on Alabama’s at-large selection, but they could not have reached the team’s goal of making it to the national stage without the remaining four runners behind them.
“The fact that we made it to nationals is because of those three guys that have been driving the train, and the commitment of those guys behind them that have really decided to buy into the program and make some great improvements,” Waters said.