This past January, a kind-of former track and field teammate at Washington State University, Samson Kimombwa, died unexpectedly in Kenya. While a student at WSU, he set a world record in the 10K, running 27:30 at a summer meet in Europe in 1977.
When I attended Washington State University in the late 1970’s, after transferring from Spokane Falls CC, I was a track team walk-on. For those unfamiliar with this term, it means that I turned out for track, but I was not on a track scholarship. Some schools won’t allow walk-ons, or if they do, it’s only by invitation because the athlete might be good enough to make the team. However, the track coach back then, John Chaplin, was very welcoming of walk-ons.
There were three very good Kenyan runners on the team. Occasionally I would see them in the locker room. They often spoke to each other in their native language, and the only one I ever interacted with was Samson. And to call him a teammate is not accurate. Though I practiced with the team, I never ran fast enough to make the team.
After Samson set his world record and was back on campus, someone brought a magazine into the locker room that had photos of him. At the time, I subscribed to Track and Field News, and they’d had him on the cover. I’m not absolutely sure, but it seemed his compatriots were chiding him about his dress – accusing him of being a fancy boy. Samson seemed a little offended at first, but was soon laughing.
I ran with a group of middle distance runners, some of whom were on scholarship, and others, like me, walk-ons. We were all from Washington. During the school year when I was participating, the Kenyans and our group did not do the same workouts. We hardly ever saw them.
Henry Rono was the most accomplished runner of the Kenyan group. He set four world records in less than three months in 1978. That has never been accomplished by a distance runner before. He was the best runner in the world but never won an Olympic gold medal. The African countries boycotted the Olympics in 1976 and 1980 when he was in his prime.