Olympian Korir opens up on how he nearly exited athletics due to depression
Emmanuel Korir stood at the start of the 800m race, consumed by his thoughts.
The Kenyan struggled to keep the negative feelings from taking control.
It was the final of the World Championships in Oregon, another great moment of his athletics career.
It wasn’t his first major championship final, but this one felt different. The Olympic champion was coming from a very dark place.
“A lot of stuff was spinning in my head. It was really tough,” Korir recalled. “It was like a trial in my life…people were expecting me to do something great after the Olympics. Something to prove that I am the only Olympic champion.”
Korir wrote his name in the history books, storming to victory in Tokyo, the fourth Kenyan man to win the 800m title at the Games.
Instead, after his dream debut at the Olympics, he lost his form. He had to deal with a calf injury, ran most of the season unsponsored, found himself isolated, and depressed.
“The injury… and, then, the people I expected to encourage and support me were celebrating (my misfortunes),” he revealed in an interview with Olympics.com.
After such a turbulent start to the season, it was hard to stand on the track in Oregon and be tension free.
In the July finals, the Kenyan managed to run a modest first lap. With about 500m to go, he found himself chasing the leaders as he had done for most of the season. He regained his composure and went past the leader Marco Arop, showing the world what they had seen of Korir last season.
“The fighting was real,” he recalled. “The fighting spirit...expecting something at the end, even though I didn’t know what might happen.”
Now, he wants to create more athletics history in 2023 and beyond: becoming only the fourth man to win two gold medals at the World Championships. Korir’s first introduction to sports was on the football pitch. He loved playing on the dirt pitches with his mates. But growing up in Iten, the Kenyan town known for producing world-class runners, he was naturally pushed to the track.
His obsession with running peaked in 2011 when he began sprinting the 100m.
Korir’s sprinting carried over to St. Francis Kimuron, the same high school David Rudisha attended. He hit the ground in the 200m and the relays. He put all his energy into sprint work, but his greatest desire was training with renowned athletics coach Brother Colm O’Connell who was also based in Iten.
But there was a twist. The Irish-born coach, one of the most successful coaches in athletics who has been producing champions for over 40 years, was only working with middle- and long-distance runners.
O’Connell who was by then working with a group that included his most successful athlete, the two-time Olympic champion and world record holder over 800m Rudisha, convinced Korir to switch to the 400m.
“That was in 2013 when Willy Tarbei and I were young athletes, and that’s when I also met Rudisha and joined them for training during school holidays. The 400m was really long for me, I was mostly last or second last, but I never gave up,” he said.
“One-day Rudisha told me if I tried to do something to reduce my weight as I was huge then, I could make a good 800m runner.”
But the shift from the longer sprint to the 800m took time. It took Paul Ereng, Kenya’s first 800m Olympic champion from Seoul 1988, to fully switch to the two-lap race.
The prospect of a scholarship at the University of Texas in El Paso, where Ereng heads the track and field team, convinced him further that the move was right.
A 1:46.94 run in the finals of the 2016 Kenyan Championships earned him his ticket to the U.S.
“When I started running, it was hard for me. I remember in training sometimes I had to do 300s, 500s and 600s, and in the end, I only did one 500m. It was tough! But I never gave up.”
“Tough” is also how Korir describes the first half of 2022.
An injury that he picked up in training in February forced him to skip the indoors.
The back-to-back Diamond League winner only managed to line up for his first race in May at a meeting in Florida, where he finished third in the 400m.
He ran his first 800m in June and could only manage a sixth-place finish in Montreuil. The Diamond League circuit was a struggle as well, as he came in eighth in Rabat and fifth in Stockholm.
The 2017 NCAA indoor and outdoor champion, opted to race the 400m at the Kenya Trials for the worlds as he had the wild card for the 800m.
Korir, who was no stranger to hectic seasons, needed to conserve his energy.
In 2017 and 2019, he failed to make the 800m finals at the World Championships. Following his personal best of 1:42.05 at London’s Olympic stadium at the 2018 Muller Anniversary Games, he struggled with back problems and injuries he sustained in a car accident just before Doha.
The 28-year-old managed to stay healthy in 2021 sealing his ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.
Korir felt he was on the brink of a breakthrough when he made the 800m finals, but the gold medal was ‘way beyond’ his reach, he thought.
“In the semis, I scrambled to the line, and I was lucky to make it to the finals. After that race, I remember my roommate Fergusson Rotich telling me, ‘This title is yours, you will win this!’ He was pretty confident, I was not.”