Student Spotlight: Micah Chelimo

by Tracy Kalytiak  |   

B.S. Mechanical Engineering, Class of 2014 Student-Athlete, Cross Country and Track & Field Hometown: Kapkoi, Kenya Fun Fact: Micah said he was "scared of snow for awhile" when he first came to Alaska.

Micah Chelimo first drew breath 5,584 feet above sea level, in a village nestled between fields of red earth and velvety-green escarpments in Kenya's Great Rift Valley.

Micah Chelimo

Micah Chelimo is about to graduate with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, four national championships and the distinction of being honored twice as Bill MacKay Athlete of the Year. Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage

"Everything is perfect to me back home," said Micah (pronounced MEE-kah). "The life is beautiful. It's like you belong to each other; you see everyone as your brother and your sister."

Now, 8,290 miles from Kenya, Micah, 25, is successfully concluding his quest for a UAA bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. Running took him to that degree; he won medals and demolished records just about every time he stepped onto a track or trail.

On Friday, Micah accepted his second Bill MacKay Athlete of the Year award-the third person in history to be named twice as UAA's top athlete. A committee of UAA Athletics staff members, local media and Benton Bay representatives voted to choose which of this year's 13 nominees would receive the award.

High points from Micah's astonishing athletic résumé include:

• He has won more All-America awards than anyone else in Great Northwest Athletic Conference history and received the honor of being named GNAC Male Athlete of the Year for indoor track & field.

• During this year's Stanford Invitational in April, Micah smashed GNAC and UAA records by running 10,000 meters in an NCAA automatic qualifying time of 28 minutes, 37.75 seconds, becoming the first athlete in league history to run that distance in fewer than 29 minutes. He broke the GNAC record by 31.5 seconds, running a District II season best, and was the third-fastest runner spanning all divisions; two Division I athletes from Brigham Young University were the only competitors who ran faster. (He will go on to compete May 22-24 at the NCAA Division II Championship in Allendale, Mich.)

• Micah earned his fourth national championship and, by himself, led UAA to a ninth-place national team finish in March when he took the 3,000-meter race by one-hundredth of a second at the 2014 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championship in North Carolina. Micah, the day before, had finished three-hundredths of a second behind that same runner, Adams State's Kevin Batt, in the 5,000-meter race.

Chelimo-NCAAs finish small

Micah Chelimo wins the 3,000-meter race and his fourth national championship, at the 2014 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships. Photo courtesy of Kyle Terwillegar

• The U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association named Micah the USTFCCCA NCAA Division II Men's Scholar Athlete of the Year for the 2012 cross-country season, for earning a 3.26 cumulative grade-point average through the 2012 fall semester. In 2011, he earned a 3.74 GPA that landed him a place on the GNAC Cross Country All-Academic Team.

• Micah earned his other three national titles and five All-America honors in three sports-cross country, track and indoor track-over a period of 10 months in 2012-2013. He won the 5,000-meter competition at the 2012 NCAA Division II Men's (Outdoor) Track & Field Championship in May 2012, won the national cross-country title in the 10,000-meter race in fall 2012 and won the 5,000-meter Men's (Indoor) Track & Field Championship in March 2013.

"Micah Chelimo is a champion in every sense of the word," UAA Athletic Director Keith Hackett said. "His athletic success, his drive to earn his degree-he will graduate May 4-and his humble view of his success are exemplary. We could not have a better representative of our university and our athletic program. Every candidate for the award was very qualified, but Micah was the choice of the committee. He is most deserving of this honor."

Preparing the ground

Running has always propelled Micah's life. He raced other boys, dashed out on errands for his mother and ran eight miles a day, five days a week-two miles to school, two miles home for lunch, two miles back to school and two miles home in the thin air of mile-high elevation.

Micah's mother, a subsistence farmer, fed her youngest son and his two brothers and three sisters the maize (corn) and vegetables she cultivated, eggs from her chickens, meat and milk from cows, sheep and goats she raised. His father had fought in World War II as a King's African Rifles officer, part of a multi-battalion British colonial regiment. To Micah, he seemed more like a grandfather. He died of malaria when Micah was 8 years old.

Micah Chelimo, left, poses with his mother, Flora Kabon Chelimo, fellow UAA runner Isaac Kangogo and the flag of Kenya, after the two men graduated Sunday. Photo by Robert Wendell Arnold

Micah Chelimo, left, poses with his mother, Flora Kabon Chelimo, fellow UAA runner Isaac Kangogo and the flag of Kenya, after the two men graduated Sunday. Photo by Robert Wendell Arnold

"My mom was the one who took care of me, brought me up, valued education," he said. "She didn't go to school but she was able to inspire us, ensure we all went to school. I'm the only one who went to college."

In Kenya, Micah studied math, English, Swahili, arts and crafts, science and Christian religious education. In fourth grade, he began learning agriculture as well, and then business and "home science"-how to cook, deal with finances and handle other tasks of everyday life.

When he was 15, Micah entered Tambach High School-a boarding school north of Kapkoi-and started learning biology, chemistry, physics and other core subjects. He preferred biology and physics and began considering a career in engineering.

"Most of the things in physics you can see, it's not so much conceptualized," he said. "I like the leadership part of engineering. I don't see myself sitting at a computer eight hours straight. Engineering is important in a country like Kenya that is developing."

In his senior year, Micah began running 3,000- and 5,000-meter races. A neighbor who had been playing soccer for a college in Minnesota came home to visit and told him about the opportunities in America that existed. "The way to achieve them was through running," he said. "I wasn't good at the time; had to train. I and two other ladies, we started training at the training camp in our village. That's where we trained for a year."

That friend from Minnesota, Kennedy Cheruiyot, met UAA's Michael Friess, head coach for track & field and cross country, at a national meet. He told the coach about Micah and Micah contacted the coach to tell him how he was progressing with his running.

"He was interested," Micah said. "I had good grades at the time, was supposed to join one of the universities back home, Kenyatta University, to study environmental science. From there on, we exchanged information, they told me what I needed to do."

Micah flew from Nairobi to Anchorage five years ago. "It was strange, especially the plane taking off," he said of his first ride on a plane. "I didn't know if I'd survive. [Leaving] was a painful moment, but at the same time joy because I was going to chase my dreams, bring home a degree."

Growing a life through running

UAA track and cross country runners frequently travel to events in California, North Carolina and other places in the Lower 48; Alaska fans of UAA don't see them competing here very often. They can, however, spot Micah and other UAA runners taking part at charitable events like Run for Relief and larger-scale Anchorage community runs like the 10K Classic-which Micah won last year with a time of 30:41.18.

Fans can also turn to YouTube to see video of Micah running in 3K, 5K and 10K competitions. His pace in these videos appears as relaxed as a comfortable jog until, almost imperceptibly at first, he maneuvers outside the clot of runners and accelerates.

He begins preparing for races, mentally, the night before.

"I stretch a little bit, put on my jersey and jog around in my room when no one is even aware," Micah said. "I think of myself racing to that finish line, leading and beating the best guy in the field. That's what gives me confidence that yes, I can do this. I might not be the best in every competition, but always I can learn something."

Micah hopes to find a sponsor, continue running competitively in the U.S. and continue his education at UAA. He wants to earn a master's degree in mechanical engineering, project management or engineering management. Last summer, he worked as an intern for the Alaska Energy Authority and he's been sending out résumés. Discipline and tenacity on the track and in his engineering studies will translate well when it's time for him to enter the business world.

"Sometimes you just have to spend some more hours, miss something, sacrifice a weekend to studies or to run 30 minutes," he said. "Down the line you'll start seeing benefits. Some people miss that part. We want everything now. You forget the process you need to achieve. I've come to think I've learned a lot of things through running. I can relate everything to running. I want to push my limit, go look for that pain."

Far away, yet close to home

Kenya remains his constant. Micah wants to use his engineering expertise to help the people who live there.

Ninety percent of Kenya is rural, he said. In the villages, the main source of energy is wood for bonfires since many people don't use stoves.

"That's something that makes me worry-what will happen in the next 50 years?" Micah said. "Constantly, trees are being cut. To plant them, grow them to maturity, will take a long time. If we don't take the right measures now, it will be a desert soon. Acacia, mahogany and mvule-it takes 50 years for them to grow into mature indigenous trees. Cypress and pine are the main exotic trees making up about 80 percent of the main forests cut for industrial purposes. No one replaces the cut fields and that is the worry I have. With forests depleted, they soon will have dry rivers."

Micah is looking toward wind and solar energy as renewable solutions for Kenya's energy plight.

"I know instructors here, have spent more than four years with my fellow students, and know who can help in what field," Micah said. "As much as I want to go home, I want to establish a firm foundation here. If I go home, I would be wasting a lot of resources. I can't do it by myself."

He journeyed to Kenya for Christmas in 2012 and stays connected to his family there either by cell phone or Facebook. Foods like the ones his mother provided as he grew up remain a mainstay in his life. "Real food, my native food-ugali, vegetables and then some days, rice, maybe chicken or beef and then eggs. I'm not really fond of dessert."

His mother's advice provided another kind of sustenance during Micah's years as a UAA athlete.

"She always tells me running is what took me to America," Micah said. "You went to do it, so do it to your level best. I have to respect that. I have the opportunity. Once five years are over, there's no coming back to be a student athlete again. This is once in a lifetime."

Written by Tracy Kalytiak, UAA Office of University Advancement.

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