The Kenyan-born Georgia resident eyes a spot on the U.S. 10,000-meter team.
Janet Cherobon-Bawcom recently posted to Twitter a picture of herself wearing a T-shirt with Cookie Monster on the front. It reads, “Will run for cookies.” Friday night in Eugene she’ll be running for something much sweeter.
The 33-year old Kenyan-born runner is racing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in the 10,000 meters, a feat that, if accomplished, would be a fitting dessert.
Cherobon-Bawcom is ranked third out of 24 declared competitors with the 31:33:50 personal best she ran at Stanford on April 29. Thirty seconds ahead of Cherbon-Bawcom is 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Shalane Flanagan (30:59:97), who is speculated to choose the marathon (for which she’s already qualified) over the 10,000m at the Olympics should she qualify for both. The only other runners in the field who have broken 32 minutes are second-ranked Amy Hastings (31:19:87) and fourth-ranked Lisa Uhl (31:35:50). Past Olympians Jen Rhines, Deena Kastor, Magda Lewy Boulet and Amy Yoder Begley either scratched or missed out because of injuries.
With the recent streak of sizzling performances, it appears Cherbon-Bawcom is primed to continue her American dream.
On June 12, at a low-key Atlanta Track Club all–comer’s meet, Cherbon-Bawcom ran the 5,000 meters in a personal best of 15:22. Earlier this spring, she scooped up two U.S. titles and one American record, running 49:41 to win the U.S. 15K road championships on March 10 in Jacksonville, Fla., and then running a record 1:24:36 to take the U.S. 25K road championships on May 12 in Grand Rapids, Mich. In between, she stepped on the track for the first time in ages and set her 10,000m PR at Stanford wearing road-racing flats.
“I got into the Stanford race to see what I could do,” she says. “I hadn’t run a race on the track in almost seven years. When I ran well, it gave me a little excitement and something to look forward to.”
She’s been cooking up excitement for almost a year. Last fall she raced her way to the overall 2011 USA Running Circuit women’s title. She kicked off the fall streak of wins with the U.S. 20K championships on Sept. 5, less than a year after getting her U.S. citizenship the previous fall.
This is Cherbon-Bawcom’s second shot at making the U.S. Olympic team after finishing fifth at the Olympic marathon trials on Jan. 14 in Houston. She was no stranger to the marathon, having run several — including three that she won in 2009 — but she had never run in such a fast race. She wound up setting a new PR with a 2:29:45 effort. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “I feel a little better heading into the track trials, although I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it until the last month.”
If she places in the top three or wins the entire race Friday night, she’ll be headed to London as the first Kenyan-American woman to represent the U.S. in track at the Olympics. But the American dream is more than just a shot at Olympic glory for Cherobon-Bawcom. Unlike other runners at the trials who grew up in families and communities that supported running, Cherbon-Bawcom grew up the oldest of eight siblings in a single-parent household in a village in Kenya where running was culturally unacceptable for females. In order to get where she is today, Cherbon-Bawcom has sought out and seized every opportunity she found.
In fact, some of those opportunities found her. After a chance meeting with Kenyan 1,500m Olympian Peter Rono while hitch-hiking her way to her aunt’s home 40 miles away, Cherobon-Bawcom began running. Eventually she was noticed two years later at a track by a Harding University coach who happened to be visiting his home in Kenya. Although yet to break a 20 minute 5K, the coach saw talent in Cherbon-Bawcom and offered her a scholarship. At 22, she packed up and moved to Searcy, Ark., leaving her family behind in the rural town of Kapsabet.
While running her way to three Division II national championships and earning NCAA All-American honors eight times, Cherbon-Bawcom worked university jobs in housekeeping and the cafeteria to support her family back in Kenya. She and her sister, Savita Chelimo, who also ran for Harding, sent money home to put their six other siblings through high school. In Kenya, the average tuition for one child to attend high school for one year is $600-$1,000. Her mother’s elementary school salary of $2,000 a year made it close to impossible to help her eight children graduate from four years in high school. Three of Cherbon-Bawcom’s siblings have now graduated college and all have graduated high school, except the two who are still students.
Clearly, education is something important to her family and family is important to Cherbon-Bawcom. When asked to whom she would dedicate the race, she replied, “It would have to be my family. A lot of them have sacrificed a lot to support me, so I’m running for my family Friday night.”
Cherbon-Bawcom not only represents the American dream, she also represents for young Kenyan women a role model that has overcome gender-based obstacles in her country to give them the freedom to run. Appropriately, she is racing the trials the day before the 40th anniversary of the signing of Title IX.
“When I started running in ’98, it was tough for me,” she says. “You didn’t see ladies running, you saw guys.”
Because it felt uncomfortable running in the countryside, she would go to town to start her run. “Now I see more females going out to run and families are more supportive of their daughters going off to training camp.” Before, it was hard for families to let their daughters, the “household keepers,” leave their kitchen chores and academics to pursue sports. Now the families see the connection between sports and academics in the form of scholarship money to universities in the states.
For several years, Cherbon-Bawcom was coached by her supportive husband, Jay Bawcom, whom she met while in college. Currently coached by Jack Daniels, Cherbon-Bawcom trains a lot on her own although occasionally with a variety of groups and individuals while splitting time between Rome, Ga., and Flagstaff, Ariz. A normal week for her consists of two hard workouts (tempo and track), a medium-length run, a long run and the rest of the week filled in with “easy” miles. “Some would not call my mileage high since I’m running 90-95 miles per week but it’s high for me,” she says. “I am less likely to get injured staying under 100 miles.”
What would it mean to be a part of the Team USA? “It’s a great opportunity to just have the chance to run in the trials,” she says. “Making the team? I don’t have any words for that now. When I make it … if I make it … maybe I will then.”
Oh, and her favorite cookies? Peanut butter or white chocolate macadamia.