EL PASO, TEXAS (KTSM) – A quartet of former UTEP track & field stars are officially heading to the Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, next month.
Michael Saruni and Emmanuel Korir qualified for the Olympics and will represent Kenya; Blessing Okagbare and Tobi Amusan will head to Tokyo to represent Nigeria.
Saruni and Korir, who starred for the Miners in 2017 and 2018, put on a show in the men’s 800 meter final at the Kenya Olympic Trials in Nairobi on Saturday. Saruni won the race in 1:45.81, with Korir finishing just milliseconds behind in third place.
Ferguson Rotich, the current World bronze medalist, finished in second place. All three men earned spots in the 800M at the Olympics thanks to their performances. Korir is also the lone Kenyan to qualify for Toko in the 400 meters, and could double up at the Olympics in July.
“It was a tactical race and making the Tokyo team was the most important thing. I am happy to wear Kenyan colours again,” Saruni told Kenya’s Citizen Digital after his victory on Saturday.
It will be the first Olympic Games for both Korir and Saruni. At UTEP for one season in 2017 before turning pro, Korir won the Indoor and Outdoor NCAA National Championship in the 800 in his lone season with the Miners.
Saruni ran two seasons for the Miners in 2017 and 2018, breaking the collegiate record in the 800, and winning the 2018 Indoor National Championship in that event. Saruni could have won more national titles at UTEP, if not for a series of mishaps at the NCAA championships. He turned pro after the 2018 season.
Both men still train in El Paso, with UTEP assistant coach Paul Ereng. A Kenyan himself, Ereng won the gold medal in the 800 at the 1988 Olympics.
Saruni will focus solely on the 800 in Tokyo, but Korir will have a choice to make: stick to the 800, or double up and run both the 400 and the 800 at the Olympics. With a personal best time of 44.21 in the 400, he could easily make waves in that event as well, if he chooses to.
“I did it (ran both races) in 2019 at the Doha Games (IAAF World Championships) and it was a nice experience. Heading to Tokyo my priority will be in the 800m, but I will decide if I will double,” Korir told the Citizen Digital.
With Korir and Saruni clinching spots at the Tokyo Olympics, they will join fellow former Miners Tobi Amusan and Blessing Okagbare. Both Amusan and Okagbare will represent their native Nigeria next month, Amusan in the women’s 100M hurdles and Okagbare in the 100M.
It will be the fourth Olympic Games for Okagbare, who won the bronze medal in the long jump at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. For Amusan, it’s her second trip to the Olympics, after an 11th place finish in Rio de Janeiro in the 2016 100m hurdles.
Okagbare ran a 10.63 100M at Nigeria’s Olympic Trials earlier this week, putting her in a tie for the second-fastest time ever run by a woman. It was also a new African record. It gives the three-time UTEP national champion (Indoor 60M, Outdoor 100M, Long jump, all in 2010) confidence that she could put together a fantastic performance in Toyko after not making the 100M final in Rio in 2016.
“Since the start of this season, I see myself as very ready,” she told The Guardian Nigeria. “I feel healthy, stronger and like the real Blessing Okagbare again. I am really happy that this time came down today; it will boost my confidence, my faith and my trust in God. I just hope this same thing happens at the Olympics.”
As for Amusan, she took first place in the 100M hurdles at the Nigerian Olympic Trials. However, due to a timing mishap, her time is unknown, but appeared to be a potential African record, had there not been a timing error. All the same, Amusan will represent Nigeria in Tokyo and is considered one of the favorites in the event.
The 2017 NCAA national champion in the 100M hurdles when she was with the Miners, Amusan also still trains in El Paso, and will hope to bring back glory to her country, as well as UTEP.
That quartet aren’t the only former Miners with Olympic dreams; Sean Bailey, Anthony Rotich and Jonah Koech also harbor hopes of heading to Tokyo.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will run from July 23-August 8 in Japan, and can be seen on KTSM.