When Paul Ereng surprised the world

Paul Ereng surprised everyone, except himself, when he tore down the home stretch to win the gold medal in the 800m race at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea in a time of 1 minute 43.45 seconds.

Well, he wasn’t always an 800m runner. The 6 foot 3 inch tall Ereng, born on 22 August 1966 and an almunus of the Starehe Boys Center ran the 400m until early 1988 when he switched to the 800m after enrolling at the University of Virginia that year.

Paul Ereng wins the 800m gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea

He barely earned qualification to the Kenyan Olympic team after placing third at the national trials.

Fast forward to the Olympics and Ereng won his qualifying heat in a time of 1 minute 46.14 seconds to reach the quarterfinals. He finished second in his quarterfinal behind Olympic record holder Joaquim Cruz of Brazil, his 1:46.38 timing good enough to secure a berth in the semis.

Growing in confidence, Ereng emerged as a medal prospect after turning the tables on Cruz, winning his semifinal in a personal best time of 1 minute 44.55 seconds to reach the final.

And what a final it was…

Ereng’s countryman, Nixon Kiprotich led the field to a sub 50 second first lap and was mixing it up with Cruz, Morocco’s Said Aouita, Great Britain’s Peter Elliot and the American Johnny Gray. Ereng was in last place as the bell tolled for the final lap and he accelerated to the finish line, claiming the gold medal.

He went on to win gold over the same distance at the 1989 World Indoor Championships in Budapest, Hungary and defended it at the 1991 edition in Seville, Spain. He failed to defend his Olympic title after crashing out at the semifinal stage of the 1992 games in Barcelona before calling time on his track career later that year due to an achilles tendon injury.

Ereng graduated from the University of Virginia in 1993 with a Bachelor’s degree in religious studies and became the first Kenyan to take a collegiate coaching job in the United States when he was named (UTEP) University of Texas at El Paso’s cross country and distance coach on Aug. 8, 2003. Ereng was promoted to Track and Field Associate Head Coach on April 14, 2010, a job that he holds to date.

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