by Wilson Kipketer

The time comes for everyone: that moment when you have to stop thinking about the past, when you have to move on and accept you’re not what you once were.

For most athletes, it’s when they choose to retire or are forced into it. But for me, it happened long before. It happened when I was at my peak.

In 1997, I won my second world title over 800m and ran five world records – three indoors, two outdoors – which earned me the title of Male World Athlete of the Year. I was invincible – until I wasn’t.

At the end of 1997 I went back to Kenya to spend Christmas with my parents but when I came back to Denmark, I was not feeling well. I went to the doctor for a blood test but nothing showed up.

A few days later I felt better so I booked a flight to Portugal for warm weather training. One night, while relaxing in the hotel, my world started spinning. I went to reception and asked them to call a doctor, who came and said, “Wilson, this is really serious, you have 41 degrees right now.”

He gave me tablets and told me to come to his clinic first thing in the morning, where he did a check-up and ran some blood tests. Before I even got the results, I faded out – unconscious.

It turned out I had malaria. From that point on, my body would never quite work the same way again.

Wilson Kipketer at the 2004 Athens Olympics (Getty Images)

I spent about three weeks in hospital and I couldn’t walk properly for three months –  I needed my wife supporting me on each step. I was totally exhausted all the time, and it was six months before I ran again.

But I never thought I was finished.

I had just come off an incredible season so in my mind, I was still the best athlete in the world. I won my first race back in August 1998, clocking 1:43 in Monaco. But in the European 800m final two weeks later, I got a push from Germany’s Nils Schumann at a key moment on the final turn. I lost my balance and suddenly all my energy was gone. I jogged the last 100 metres, finishing last.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I would never be able to train the same way again. After 1997, if I did one hard week I needed one or two easy weeks to recover. I had to start a new chapter, change my way of thinking because I was not the same athlete.

It’s why, when I look back on my career, coming back to win a third world title in 1999 may well be my biggest achievement. But when you’ve dominated your event for such a long period, the expectation becomes multiplied for an Olympic year.

That’s what happened in 2000, but then I tore my calf three weeks before the Sydney Olympics. Despite that, and despite coming back from malaria, some people saw my silver medal there as a failure. I didn’t.

Wilson Kipketer at the 2000 Sydney Olympics (Getty Images)

People could see the result and make their judgement but they couldn’t feel what I was feeling. I was there, feeling the pain, not sleeping at night, getting stress, knowing I wasn’t in good shape but still knowing I have to try, to wake up in the morning and still be positive.

When you have success it’s easy to get friends, every door is open to you, but when you make a mistake or fall short the doors start closing. I soon realised that and while it didn’t hurt my confidence, it made me understand the world a little bit better: it’s not about what you do to impress everyone else; it’s what you do for yourself.

After 1998 I decided it’s better to neutralise everything in the past and start from zero. That was crucial to the second part of my career. I began to enjoy every day because I knew where I had once been with the malaria.

You still want to win, of course, but you have to accept it’s not always possible. The years leading up to the 2004 Olympics were equally difficult, my body not working the way it once had. Long before I made it to Athens, I knew it would be my last Games.

I’d been struggling for six years and it wasn’t getting better. I was realistic: Wilson, how long can you hold this pain?

Athens was a tough one. I had a problem with my hamstring on the build-up and couldn’t sprint so in training, I was not doing any 200s at full power. In the final I had nothing left for the last 100, but given the problems on the build-up, I was happy with the bronze medal.

Wilson Kipketer at the 2004 Athens Olympics (Getty Images)

It meant I left the sport when I was still on the podium. The worst is when you continue until people cannot see you anymore – I never wanted to do that.

It’s hard to believe more than 15 years have passed since then, but these days I’m writing another new chapter. I work in the marketing department of Puma and I’m still involved in the sport, working with almost 40 athletes in Copenhagen who are aged between 15 and 30.

It’s a chance for me to pass on the lessons of my career and many times, it has nothing to do with what happens on the track. The first question I ask athletes: what do you want?

Once they know that, they can get a guideline to reach where they’re going. You need patience in this sport. During my first World Junior Championships in 1988 I was disqualified for stepping on the line on the first bend and two years later, I finished fourth at the same event. Back then not many would have said I was a big talent.

But five years later, I was world champion at senior level. I always had that plan in mind and young athletes need to learn that to reach a certain level, you need to make a choice. It’s about being responsible for your actions.

It takes time to build confidence and to learn the control of their own body. It’s like a car that can go at 300 kilometres per hour. Yes, you can move at that speed but can you handle it? Success in this sport is about learning how to manage your ability.

Wilson Kipeter during an Athletics for a Better World event  (Getty Images)

It’s often not a problem of the training, it’s how to manage yourself. I try to teach athletes to think about themselves before they think about running: how to utilise their resources, their time, their money.

The people around you need to respect what you’re doing. Isolating yourself from a social life can be difficult. Friends want to party all night and you don’t want to always party with them, but if you’re organised you can make your friends understand and support you. If they’re real friends, they’ll want you to succeed.

But you need to be patient, and some young athletes are not. Coaching is like planting an apple tree, and in the future I want them to give fruit.

We are now in a money-driven world and you often hear athletes saying “if I run, I will make money,” but success doesn’t come that way. The thinking instead should be: if this is what I want, what does it take?

We need to help young people see that it’s possible to achieve success without cutting corners, and to do that they have to start out with the right mentality.

When you see athletes begin to understand that and progress, it brings a great sense of satisfaction. Nothing may ever fully replace the thrill of doing it for yourself, but this is a great alternative.