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Sam Chelanga On Going With The Wind And Finding Victory Within For His Career And Life

“What I know is the aspect of being looked at differently because of our national heritage – in this case as Kenyan athletes who also happen to be Black in the United States of America. It’s real…One of the things that bothered me many times was that I would go and run a race and if it was a United States championship, they would say ‘Kenyan-born Sam Chelanga.’ What do you get by that? You get to tell people this is the real champion and this is not the real champion because he is Kenyan-born. My performance and my hard work go through the window.”


Lots of people know of Sam from his success as a three-time NCAA cross country champion out of Liberty. He set the NCAA 10,000 meter record of 27:08.49 in the same race that Chris Solinsky broke 27 to set the American record. Those accomplishments came before he became an American citizen in 2015. It was something he wanted for a while and patiently waited out the process until it became official. As a professional, he had some success including being the alternate for the 2016 Olympics in the men’s 10,000 meters and then taking well to the roads. Then in 2018, he retired to enlist in the Army at 33 years old. It was a sudden announcement that surprised many because he was in the middle of an Olympic cycle. He explains so much behind what called him to do that along with many of the other major decisions in his life – on this podcast and also in his new book “With The Wind: Finding Victory Within.” The book will come out on July 28. You can order your copy here.

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SHOW NOTES

What made him want to write this book?

I didn’t see myself as just a runner. The more I explored I thought, I realized that it doesn’t matter what you’re looking to get in life – whether you’re working in a restaurant or running – you’re trying and searching to get to that next level. I’m not going to lie to you. When I came to the United States, I just wanted one thing: I just wanted to come to the United States. When I got here, I thought that because I’m on a scholarship, I wanted to win conference. It just kept going up from there. At one point, I’m like, ‘Man, I probably could just get a title.’ I ended up getting four and a national record. Every time, I felt like I was the same person. The record-holder was the same guy in the village saying, ‘I just want to get a shot in the United States.’

Running out of poverty in Kenya

When I signed with Nike, there were so many times when I took for granted the fact that I had some of the best shoes ever. My first shoe ever was this flip flop made out of used tires. We got it in a really remote market by my village. I couldn’t even get it the first time. We had to go through steps to get it. When I finally got it, I was so happy and I still remember that pair until today. That’s how poor we were. I don’t want to use ‘poor’ though. We just didn’t have a lot.

His introduction and relationship with Kenyan Olympic legend Paul Tergat, who helped him get into the sport

This guy could listen. He was intelligent. He was not just a normal villager. This is a smart guy who has a lot of wisdom. For the first time, I could talk to someone about what I wanted to do.”

Arriving in New York City

Looking at the (George Washington Bridge) was so monumental that it sunk in my head and I didn’t say a word for the next five minutes. I just sat back in the corner. Everything I looked at had so much sensory overload that when I got to the campus, I didn’t know how to get from Point A to Point B. Later on, I realized, ‘Man, I was such an idiot. That was right across the street.’ I would always call my brother and say, ‘Hey, Edwin. You better come get me.’”

How he ended up at Liberty

There was still a tug in my heart. There was something more that my heart was yearning for. I would have so much fun with buddies and every time there were thoughts that there’s something that I’m searching for and it’s not here yet. I had a deep appreciation for the life I had at Fairleigh Dickinson but for some reason, I wanted to leave it and no one could understand…To be honest with you, I wanted to go to a Christian school. That’s something I grew up with and I wanted it. I went with my gut. It was the first decision that I made in my life.”

What’s his proudest NCAA cross country title?

I enjoyed all of them, especially when I won. But man, that battle with Galen Rupp was something. I woke up that next morning and I was sore because he had elbowed me so hard. I realized that dude actually worked for it. He felt the pressure. I felt the pressure. It was boss. It was badass. Everybody loves watching it.”

In a hypothetical cross country race with greats like him, Rupp, Lawi Lalang, Kennedy Kithuka and Edward Cheserek, who would win?

It would be a relentless battle. If I were to pick a winner, it would either be me or Rupp. I think we would absolutely dust Kithuka and Lawi…I think Cheserek would probably come in the top three for sure.

10 years since he ran the collegiate record of 27:31.38 at the 2010 Payton Jordan Invitational

I remember sprinting to the line, seeing the time and I couldn’t believe it. The fact that I wasn’t able to duplicate it again tells me just how important it was and how epic it was.

His long process of becoming an American citizen

I remember I went home to Kenya for a mission trip and I just missed my apartment, my car and my friends here. I remember telling my dad, who was still alive at the time, ‘I got to talk to you. I really like America.’…He told me a saying in Swahili that translates to ‘If you like it then you’ll do what it takes.’…That’s when I came back and then that fall I started the process.”

Following up on Aliphine Tuliamuk’s recent comments about the media’s portrayal of African-born runners in U.S. races

This is a very touchy subject. What I know is the aspect of being looked at differently because of our national heritage – in this case as Kenyan athletes who also happen to be Black in the United States of America. It’s real. I’m going to be honest with you since no one asked me this question before. When I was watching the racial stuff, I think we went through it. I can’t tell you how many times someone would say, ‘That’s how much we pay Kenyans.’ I wish they would say, ‘I wish that’s how much we pay someone as fast as you.’ Not Kenyans. It hurts. It does hurt a little bit because you do know that this is something that creates an uneven environment…We also have a culture in the United States of just celebrating a winner…I used to hang out with friends and I could see their paychecks. Someone got significantly higher pay than me on an appearance fee. I shoved it to the side because I thought, ‘I was poor in my village. This is still a good opportunity.’ I’d see the brighter side.”

“Those women have to go through so much more because of the color of their skin.”

“One of the things that bothered me many times was that I would go and run a race and if it was a United States championship, they would say ‘Kenyan-born Sam Chelanga.’ What do you get by that? You get to tell people this is the real champion and this is not the real champion because he is Kenyan-born. My performance and my hard work go through the window.”

“When I see Sally and Aliphine, I think they’re amazing. It’s just unfortunate that they didn’t get that coverage. But don’t worry about it. You can’t always control what people say.”

How he came to the decision to serve in the U.S. Army and what his role looks like on a day-to-day basis

My heart really wanted to go to the Army. That Army application just seemed to me like what I wanted to do. I had another offer and then this one…My friend was telling me, ‘Come work for me. You can still run on the side. I think this could be fun for you and your family.’ I wouldn’t have had to move. I had my house in Colorado Springs. I remember I told my wife that this was definitely one of those things that felt like a calling.”

Returning from a brief retirement from the sport to race in the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

I did it for the fun of it. Sometimes in life, you just need to enjoy yourself. I did that. I enjoyed myself. It was fun while it lasted. Right now, I’m focused on my job in the Army. I’m going to run every day at least for like six or seven miles in the morning. Two or three times a week, I’ll throw in a workout there. Maybe a 10 miler over the weekend. All just to stay in shape and see how it goes. With COVID-19 a lot of things changed. There’s something for me that I can give in running but at this point, my priority is my job.

SPONSOR

😎  Support for this episode comes from GOODR SUNGLASSES  – I’ve been rocking Goodr sunglasses throughout the past couple of months and they’re the best. No slip. No bounce. No fog. Polarized. Ridiculously affordable starting at $25 a pair. No discounts needed when they’re already the most affordable performance shades on the planet. | Visit GOODR.COM/CITIUS to check out some of my favorite pairs.

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