Kenyan-born runner Hillary Bor won’t be content with just wearing the red, white and blue at the Olympics.
He’s willing to protect his new country, too.
The sergeant in the U.S. Army heads to Rio this month while his unit — which includes his older brother — is already deployed to Afghanistan. Bor stayed behind this time, but it could be his turn soon.
That’s the reality for Bor and three other runners of Kenyan descent who’ve taken a unique path to the Olympics through enlisting in the Army, earning U.S. citizenship, training with the military branch’s World Class Athlete Program and making Team USA.
They understand the risks. They’ve pledged allegiance to America — as soldiers to defend and now as runners hoping to bring home an Olympic medal.
“I might be told tomorrow, ‘Hey, pack your things, we’re deploying.’ I can’t say, ‘I have the Olympics coming up,’ said Army specialist Paul Chelimo, who’s from Iten, Kenya, and earned a spot in the 5,000 meters at U.S. Trials in July. “Whatever happens from now to the Olympics, into the future, I’m here to follow the orders.”
Simply the Army way of life for specialists Leonard Korir and Shadrack Kipchirchir, Chelimo and Bor.
— Korir hails from Iten, Kenya, and was a two-time NCAA champion at Iona College before joining the Army in May 2015 as a motor transportation operator. He qualified in the 10,000 meters at trials.
— Kipchirchir is from Eldoret, Kenya, and was an All-American at Oklahoma State University. He enlisted in June 2014 as a financial management technician. He’s going in the 10,000.
— Bor, a 3,000-meter steeplechase runner, arrived from Eldoret as a teenager, running for Iowa State and entering the military in July 2013. He’s one of three Bor brothers in the Army — the other two following his lead.
— Chelimo became a standout at University of North Carolina-Greensboro, before joining in May 2014. He balances his time between training and his duties as a water treatment specialist.
“If you have a contract with a big shoe company, that’s predictable — you know what’s going to happen,” Chelimo explained. “With the Army, you don’t know.”
All four are part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which formally began in 1997 and is designed to give soldier-athletes the support necessary to compete at the highest levels. The program — headquartered in Fort Carson, Colorado — includes a variety of sports, with more than a dozen soldier-athletes and three coaches making the trip for the Rio Olympics and Paralympics.
A number bolstered by the Kenyan-raised runners.
“It’s a pretty humbling moment to think that somebody would want to leave their country and come to yours and do so to the degree in which they would die for something they haven’t even been a part of yet,” said Army Capt. Matthew Hickey, who supervises the program. “WCAP provides a lot to the U.S. Army — we help train soldiers, help make more ready and resilient troops.
“However, if all hell broke loose, everybody in the U.S. Army is a soldier first and expected to go deploy and defend the country.”
Bor was nearly sent to Afghanistan in February, when his unit needed either him or his brother to go.
His older brother, Julius, instantly volunteered.
“It takes courage for someone to raise their hand and say, ‘I’m going to fight for my country.’ It’s something I admire,” Hillary Bor said. “He knew I had a chance to make the team.”
Growing up, Bor preferred soccer over running, which he didn’t really even take seriously until after high school when his uncle, Barnaba Korir, a standout at Iowa State, enticed him to come to America and give college running a try.
Bor followed his uncle’s lead to Ames, Iowa, and in no time unlocked a talent for the steeplechase, a 3,000-meter race around the track that includes jumping over barriers and into water. Bor became a four-time All-American at Iowa State.
After graduation, his running career seemed to hit a road block. So he took an assistant teaching position in New Mexico before joining the Army not so much as a path to Olympics — he didn’t know about WCAP — but simply because, “I wanted to be American,” he said.
Later, his two older brothers followed his lead — Julius joining him at Fort Carson and Emmanuel at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Bor’s running career was rekindled through a timed two-mile run that’s required for soldiers.
He finished in roughly 10 minutes.
“Everyone was like, ‘You should compete for the Army team,'” Bor said.
Not as simple as that, though. First, he had to earn his place in WCAP by running a qualifying time. It took him nearly three years — and stepping up his training largely on his own — to earn inclusion.
A typical day for him went like this: Rise at dawn for training runs with an off-base coach, return to perform his Army tasks and train again at night.
In May, Bor ran the necessary time to earn a spot in WCAP. And in July, he finished second at trials to secure his place in Rio.
Fittingly, Bor’s first message was to his brother in Afghanistan.
“This is not only for my brother, but for my whole unit,” Bor said. “It’s for every soldier that’s deployed now.”