Thirteen minutes and 35 seconds. That’s how long it took former UNCG track and field star Paul Chelimo ’14 to punch his ticket to Rio.
But for the Olympian – who will compete in the first round of the men’s 5,000 meter race on Wednesday, Aug. 17 – the journey has been anything but fast.
A native of Kenya, Chelimo discovered his speed as a young boy playing tag with his brothers.
“They could never catch me,” he said. “That’s when I knew I had something special.”
In middle and high school, Chelimo participated in track and field meets. But it wasn’t until November of 2009, one month after he graduated from high school, that he bought his first pair of running shoes and started training competitively.
Just one year later, Chelimo moved to the United States to attend Shorter University in Georgia. In 2011, he transferred to UNCG.
“Getting an athletic scholarship in the United States was a great opportunity for me,” Chelimo said. “I didn’t just want to run – I wanted a good education as well.”
His career at UNCG – which included outdoor track, indoor track and cross country – was decorated, to say the least. In 2012 and 2013, Chelimo was the national runner-up in the 5,000 meter race at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, posting times of 13:41.04 and 13:40.41, respectively. He was also a three-time Southern Conference Cross Country Champion and a six-time All-America recipient during his career.
“I was able to expose my talent really well at UNCG,” he said. “The athletics department gave me a lot of support. They took care of me like I was family.”
Chelimo’s work ethic and competitive spirit extended from the track to the classroom. The public health major was a recipient of the Irwin Belk Athletic Scholarship and the Aaron Bobb Scholarship and graduated with a 3.6 grade point average.
Upon graduation, Chelimo was accepted into the highly competitive U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, a unique opportunity that provides outstanding soldier-athletes the support and training to compete in national and international competitions while maintaining a professional military career.
For Chelimo, who became a naturalized U.S. citizen through the military program, his service as a water treatment specialist in the Army is inspired by his gratitude for the opportunities he has been given.
“In Kenya, it would have been really tough for me to pay for school and run competitively,” he said. “The best way for me to thank the United States for this opportunity is to serve in the military.”
It’s been a long journey for an athlete accustomed to speed, but it’s safe to say that Chelimo’s training has finally paid off. As he prepares for the most important race of his life on the world’s biggest stage, Chelimo is quick to thank UNCG and the Greensboro community.
“I really want to thank UNCG, the athletics department and the Greensboro community for the support,” he said. “If I didn’t have the opportunity to train well at UNCG, I wouldn’t be headed to the Olympics.”
And there’s no question that the campus community is behind him.
“To be the first UNCG Spartan to compete in the Olympics – the highest form of competition for an athlete – is incredibly meaningful,” said UNCG Director of Athletics Kim Record. “The entire Spartan family will be rooting for Paul. Regardless of the outcome of the race, he will represent us well.”
Chelimo will compete in the first round of the 5,000 meter race on Wednesday, Aug. 17, at 9:05 a.m. EST. The race will stream live at NBCOlympics.com. The final round is Saturday, Aug. 20, at 8:30 p.m. EST and will broadcast live on NBC.
Share your Spartan pride and wish Paul good luck on social media using the hashtag #ChelimoInRio.
Story by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Communications
Photography by Cheryl Treworgy