Faith Kipyegon, ‘the sniper,’ becomes greatest female mile champ in history at track worlds

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In 2015, Jenny Simpson, arguably the greatest U.S. female miler in history, slapped a label on a budding runner from Kenya named Faith Kipyegon.

“I call her the sniper,” Simpson said then, three months after the then-21-year-old Kipyegon won her first global 1500m medal, silver at the 2015 World Championships. “She won’t go out and run hard from the gun, but she can run people down. The last 200 meters or so she’s really good, and she’ll be four seconds back with a lap to go, and all of a sudden she’s running people down.

“I think she weighs as much as my right leg. She’s teeny.”

Kipyegon bagged her second world title on Monday, prevailing in 3 minutes, 52.96 seconds in Eugene, Oregon. That combined with her two Olympic golds, separated by a 22-month maternity leave from competition (that included 12 months without running), makes her the first woman to win four global 1500m titles.

“I knew I was the best,” said Kipyegon who overtook Ethiopian Gudaf Tsegay on the final lap after Tsegay set a blistering early place. “I had pressure because everybody was expecting really special things for me. Everybody was like, ‘We have faith,’ ‘We believe in Faith.'”

She was one of four athletes from four different continents among Monday night’s five finals to win a fourth global title, along with Belgian Nafi Thiam (heptathlon), Venezuelan Yulimar Rojas (triple jump) and Qatar’s Mutaz Barshim (high jump).

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Kipyegon was the eighth of nine children growing on a farm in the Kenyan Rift Valley. Older sister Beatrice Mutai and her dad, Samuel Koech, also ran. Kipyegon was a soccer player at age 14 when she lined up for a one-kilometer run in PE class, according to World Athletics.

“I won that race by 20 meters,” Kipyegon said, according to World Athletics in 2016. “It is only then I knew I could run fast and be a good athlete.”

In 2010, a barefooted Kipyegon placed fourth in the world cross country championships junior race as, at age 16, the youngest finisher in the top 21. The next year, she won it. The year after that, she made her Olympic debut at age 18.

In 2016, she passed world record holder Genzebe Dibaba on the final lap to win Olympic gold. In 2017, she passed Sifan Hassan, the most versatile distance runner of this era, on the final lap to win world championships gold. She did the same to Hassan at the Tokyo Games.

“I’m biased, but in my eyes she’s the greatest 1500m runner there has ever been,” Brit Laura Muir reportedly said after following Kipyegon to silver and a personal-best time in Tokyo. “I don’t think she gets enough credit for the athlete she is. She’s won everything.”

Kipyegon is the fourth-fastest female miler in history, trailing two dubious Chinese and Dibaba, whose world record is a second faster than Kipyegon’s personal best. Kipyegon said that record isn’t a priority and that she may shift to the 5000m after the 2024 Paris Games, according to Olympics.com. No woman has won three Olympic gold medals in an individual track event.

Worlds continue Tuesday, highlighted by finals in the men’s 400m hurdles and men’s 1500m.

Also Monday, Thiam joined Kipyegon as a two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion, prevailing with 6,947 points. American Anna Hall earned bronze with a 297-point personal best total. She vaulted from the 11th-best American in history to No. 3 behind world record holder Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Jane Frederick.

Like Kipyegon and Thiam, Rojas earned a fourth global title. She three-peated as world triple jump champion with the fifth-best jump in history. Rojas, 26, has six of the top seven jumps on the all-time list, including the world record. Tori Franklin earned bronze to become the first American woman to win an Olympic or world medal in the event.

Like Kipyegon, Thiam and Rojas, Barshim became a four-time global champion. He cleared 2.37 meters to three-peat as world champion, a year after sharing Olympic gold with Italian Gianmarco Tamberi (who was fourth Monday).

Moroccan Soufiane El Bakkali followed his Olympic gold with his first world title in the 3000m steeplechase, making his move off the last water jump. On the first lap, runners had to avoid a camera man on the track.

All of the favorites advanced to 200m semifinals for the men (Americans Noah Lyles and Erriyon Knighton, after Olympic champion Andre De Grasse withdrew) and the women (Jamaicans Shelly-Ann Fraser-PryceElaine Thompson-Herah and Shericka Jackson).

In the morning, Ethiopian Gotytom Gebreslase won the women’s marathon in a championship record 2:18:11, edging Kenyan Judith Jeptum Korir by nine seconds. Americans finished fifth (Sara Hall), seventh (Emma Bates) and eighth (Keira D’Amato). Gebreslase, the 2021 Berlin Marathon winner, extended Ethiopia’s early success at worlds after wins in the women’s 10,000m (Letesenbet Gidey) and men’s marathon (Tamirat Tola).

NBC Olympic Research contributed to this report.

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