Joshua Cheptegei is having a sumptuous lunch meal at the Gouman Tower Hotel with marathoner Robert Chemonges, who just over an hour ago returned from his own race where he finished 43rd.
His demeanour is one of an athlete who is enjoying the moment, knowing all too well that his career is just getting started.
He is cracking jokes, recollecting his 10,000m ‘war’ with the Kenyans on Friday night to Uganda Athletics Federation (UAF) president Dominic Otuchet and athletics coach Gordon Ahimbisibwe both of whom are dining on the same table, and recalling what Mo Farah told him yesterday (last Saturday) at Nike Town in central London.
This is the Cheptegei Ugandans wondered whether they would ever see in the aftermath of his shock collapse in the men’s senior World Cross-Country Championships at Kololo airstrip.
In his young career, it is by some distance the most forgettable moment he has had to confront as a sportsman.
“I try to forget it,” Cheptegei says. “But just as it is being erased in my mind and head, you find a new person recalling what happened and asking to know why the race at the Cross-Country ended the way it did.”
Last week’s silver medal will go a long way in defining a new path for the young athlete.
By finishing behind the great Mo Farah and taking home a cool Shs108m, Cheptegi showed that he has the mental steel required to compete on the biggest stage of all. The manner in which he held off Kenyans Paul Kipngetich Tanui and Bedan Karoki Muchiri on the home straight was evidence of his physical and psychological strengths.
“Those Kenyans ganged on me with their crazy tactics,” remarks Cheptegei. “But I had to stand my ground and not be shaken. In fact it gave me renewed energy to beat them.”
And beat them he did to send the country in jubilation. The excitement was not to the bedlam levels of Stephen Kiprotich’s Olympic and World Championships golds but Cheptegei’s silver lifted a country which started the Games knowing usual medal hopefuls Moses Kipsiro and Kiprotich were not taking part.
“It (winning silver) makes me have the passion and heart for my country. It does make me delighted that I have made my people happy.
“You always have to put your country first and do things that reward your home. So my achievement is Uganda’s and it is ultimately our happiness. Life is about happiness.”
So terrific was his silver that Cheptegei is certain the second place finish at the London Worlds put his IAAF 10000m juniors championship gold in the shade.
It is a turning point for me, the first senior medal in my career. It was the first medal in the 10,000m in the World Athletics Championship for our country in history.
I know we have had our highs with Stephen (Kiprotich) but this is our first in 10k and that in itself is history. It is really something great.” Such was Cheptegei’s magnificent run that gold medal winner Farah took notice. “Farah told me he felt the pressure was too much. And that we guys were chasing after him and he didn’t know if I can sustain this. So in his own words, ‘I need to escape to the road.’”
With Farah permanently switching to road running and Cheptegei now the second best 10,000m runner in the world, the Ugandan has a chance to be the dominant long distance runner of the new generation. “I definitely have the chance to dominate the 5000 and 10000m now,” he speaks with the assurance of a man who has already put thought to it.
But for Cheptegei to walk the talk, he won’t do it all on his own.
“If I get more support and if government is keen and finishes the High Altitude Training Centre in Teryet, I will have two gold medals in Tokyo.”
The two gold medals he is taking about are the 5,000 and 10,000m, races he thinks he has a very good chance of winning.
“I will say it again, if I get more government support I will deliver two golds in Tokyo,” Cheptegei reiterates himself.
No Ugandan in history has won two medals at the same competition but Cheptegei is already eyeing something that would arguably define him as the greatest athlete ever in the Pearl of Africa.
That is not to say he is getting carried away, far from it. Instead he is psyching himself up and setting targets that will make him work harder every passing day.
When the London Championships close on Sunday, Cheptegei’s focus will instantly shift to 2018.
“My next mission now is to win double gold in the Commonwealth Games. I want to make a name for myself and Uganda there as well as market my country and our anthem is played and the flag is raised. It really means a lot to me.”
For an athlete who had surreal 2017 of a major low that led him to the heights of silver, 2018 portends well for the 20-year-old.
In many ways, the sky is the limit for the youngster that Cheptegei is.
CHEPTEGEI AT A GLANCE
Name: Joshua Kiprui Cheptegei
Sport: Track And Field
2017 World Champ: 10000m silver
2015 Africa Juniors: 10000m gold
2014 World Juniors: 10000m gold
WORLD ATHLETICS MEDALS
Stephen Kiprotich (2013 marathon)
Dorcus Inzikuru (2005 3000m steeplechase)
Davis Kamoga (1997 400m)
Joshua Cheptegei (2017 10000m)
Moses Kipsiro 2007 (5000m)