Native Kenyan runs for the US Army
By ADAM JARDY | The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio | Published: April 29, 2017
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — Like the other elite runners gathering Downtown on Front Street, Leonard Korir's goal is to win the 2017 USA Track & Field Half Marathon Championship. Unlike the others, though, competing in the race is more than just a hobby or a way to earn a living.
Running is Korir's second job, and one that is made possible by his first job: serving in the United States Army.
Born in Kenya, Korir joined the Army under a protocol known as MAVNI — Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest — because of his ability to speak Swahili. He earned his citizenship while training with the Army's World Class Athlete Program after attending Iona College, where he was a two-time NCAA champion (indoor 5 kilometers, outdoor 10k).
In Kenya, Korir said English is primarily used in schools but that he grew much more fluent while in college.
"The Army is the first thing," Korir said. "You go with what the leadership is telling you. If they say you have to be here, you go there. Then after your job if you want to go to a race, you ask for permission and go run and perform at your best. That's the mentality that we have."
Based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the World Class Athlete Program was created in 1997, and soldiers who participate can gain their citizenship within the first six months. Korir joined the army in September 2015 and became an American citizen nine months later. He was a member of the Olympic team and finished 14th in the 10,000 meters.
But time for running came only when his Army duties and obligations were satisfied.
"You have to go to basic training," he said. "But at the same I knew that if you want something, you have to make a sacrifice. I wanted to join the Army and knew if I did it, then it's going to help me a lot. After I graduated from basic training, I realized that I made the right choice and I'm looking forward to doing great things for the Army."
This year, Korir has won five events, including the U.S. Cross Country Championships in Bend, Oregon, on Feb. 4. In that race, like in several others this year, he outkicked his competition with the finish line in sight. His preferred races are anywhere from 10k to half marathons, he said.
"If you're trying to attain the American dream, you can't do it without your citizenship," said Col. Sean Ryan, who helps coach Korir. "These guys come in, they serve their country and if they're good enough like Leonard is, he gets to run and broadcast the U.S. Army across the world because of the Olympics."
Last year's Capital City half marathon champions are both back to defend their titles. Christo Landry won the men's event, the first of two years in which it doubles as the national championship, in 1:02.52. Defending women's champion Tara Welling won with a time of 1:10.25.
The 30-year-old Korir won the half marathon at the Houston Marathon in January with a time of 1:01.14.
"It might be too hot, the weather might not be so good, but one of my goals is to go out there and be competitive and make sure I give everything and do what I can to try and get a win," Korir said. "That's the main goal."