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“Kenyans Never Quit": How Ferdinand Omanyala is Empowering Africa’s Next Generation of Sprinters

Omanyala: 'Kenyans never quit'
Mary Omatiga sits down with Kenyan sprinter Ferdinand Omanyala to discuss the pride he has for representing his country, what competing means to him, and the legacy he wants to leave behind for future generations.

Kenyan sprinter Ferdinand Omanyala, 28, known as “the fastest man in Africa” for his dominance in the men’s 100m, clocked a remarkable 9.79 seconds at the Kenyan Olympic Track and Field Trials last week, setting the world’s fastest 100m time of 2024. But the 2022 African champion and Tokyo Olympian believes he is just getting started. Omanyala discusses his goals for the 2024 Paris Olympics and the impact he wants to make on the next generation of African sprinters.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about your upbringing in Bungoma County, Kenya. Can you paint the picture of what life was like for you there?

Ferdinand Omanyala: Growing up in Bungoma, my dad was someone who wanted us to study and get things right in terms of education. [Our household] was very books-oriented. My brothers and I went to very good schools from primary school through the high school level. But of course, there were other parts to my upbringing including working on farms and herding cattle.

Can you tell me more about your family? What were your parents like and what are some of the lessons they taught you?

Omanyala: We’re a family of 7 including my parents so we are five brothers. I am the third-born, so there were two in front of me and two behind me. One thing that I’ve learned from my parents that I still hold on to till now is how strong they were and [their ability to] just get through the challenges of life—holding the family together, and just making sure that no matter what, they’re going to make us happy. That’s something that I picked up and I want to continue [sharing those lessons] with my family now.

Your family is from the Luhya tribe. What are some values from your culture that formed you into the person you are today?

Omanyala: The Luhya are a tribe that has strong men because of their upbringing. A lot of people from that tribe play rugby and do sprints. It shaped me to [become an athlete]. I’ll say genes contributed about 60%.

Ferdinand Omanyala Kenyan Pride.PNG

Ferdinand’s Instagram

What is your favorite thing about being Kenyan?

Omanyala: The resilience. Kenyans never quit. If they want something, they want something. One thing I love about this country is that they’re so passionate about sports, especially now that I’m doing something that has never been done by a Kenyan before. There’s so much passion about it. You’ll find people talking about it, even people who know nothing about athletics, but they Google stuff.

You mentioned doing something that no Kenyan has ever done before. You are Africa’s fastest man and the current record holder. How much pride do you have in those accomplishments?

Omanyala: I’m very happy and proud to be the fastest man in Africa out of a population of about 1 billion, but I still want to achieve more. I still want to run fast times. But I’m proud. I love that it is going to inspire generations to come and inspire so much young talent in Africa that if Omanyala did it, then we can do it.

Ferdinand Omanyala Kenyan Record.PNG

Ferdinand’s Instagram

Historically, Kenya has been known for being a powerhouse in middle and long distances, but a lot of people would say you put Kenya on the map for sprinting. What does that mean to you?

Omanyala: It means a lot. When I [first started the sport], I had dreams that one day we’d have a sprinter sign a contract to become a pro athlete. I never knew that that was [going to be] me. That means a lot to me because now that [message] will go a long way.

We have so much sprinting talent in Kenya. We are very good at Rugby Sevens which involves a lot of sprinting and strength workouts. The talent is there. The belief wasn’t there and it all [starts] in the mind. The mindset was that [Kenyans] could never get into a Diamond League series or other big meets but that’s changed and I believe that’s going to change a lot of things going forward.

You’ve talked in the past about carrying the mantle of the country on your shoulders. What are the pressures you face in representing Kenya that people aren’t aware of?

Omanyala: I don’t put pressure on myself because the moment I step on that track, it’s me running. It’s not my wife, it’s not even my coach running. It’s me running. So every time I step on that track I always remind myself that this is for you, it’s always for you. So you have to just make sure that you make this right and create a legacy for yourself, not for anybody else. Then after that, there’s family and then the country now coming in. So I enjoy doing what I’m doing and I’m glad that it’s affecting so many people.

How have the Kenyan people shown their support for you and what does it mean to you to have that support?

Omanyala: I’ve gotten so much support from my countrymen and that means a lot. The Kip Keino Classic is an event that we organize [in Kenya] every year, and the support that you see coming in...thousands of people just come flock to the stadiums to come and watch Omanyala and that means a lot.

Anytime I’m going to compete, I’m always trending on Twitter, Facebook, and Google because people are showing their support. So many messages come in. Not just in Kenya alone, but people message me from different countries in Africa and tell me ‘We are behind you. We are supporting you, we are cheering you on.’ That means a lot to me. Sometimes I feel low but anytime I see those kinds of messages I feel pumped again.

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Ferdinand’s Instagram

What legacy do you want to leave behind in representing your country?

Omanyala: I want to leave this country at a point where every year we have a sprinter coming up. I don’t want to have a situation where we’re having trials and then we all know who’s going to win, [where people say] ‘Omanyala’s going to win this.’ I don’t want that.

I want a situation where we’ll have 4 or 5 sprinters dipping under 10 seconds. I want that kind of competition in this country. That’s why I’m working with different partners to come up with structures. We want to come up with opportunities for these people. We want to come up with a sprint club where we’ll train the sprinters and make sure that we continue having these talents even going forward. I don’t want to leave this spot empty. I don’t want to leave a hole in this country in sprinting.

I’ve already [helped the world see] that there’s a sprinter in Kenya. Anytime you mention athletics in Kenya, people will ask ‘Do you know Omanyala?’ So I don’t want that to die. I want to leave a legacy where people will remember me and say Omanyala opened the doors for us. He gave us the [tools] and showed us how it’s done, and now [Kenya] has so many sprinters.

What do you need to get that sprint training club established?

Omanyala: The main thing is financial. Setting that up is a bit tricky so we’re trying to talk to different [corporations]. We’re talking to the government also to see if they can come in and help. We want to organize different kinds of events that will be recruiting these athletes and we want to start as young as 12 years old cause that’s where you [can] nurture and show them—teach them early.

We want to set up a camp in Nairobi. I have a very good coach right now who can teach former athletes how to coach, give them work, and take them in to train these athletes.

We want to merge education and talent because I’m also a Bachelor of Science chemistry student. Education has been the foundation for everything that I have right now so I don’t want that part to die. We want to come up with a way that we can nurture talent but not forget education. So when they turn 18 and can make their own decisions they can decide if they want to go to the U.S., Australia, or maybe even Europe to further their studies, do athletics, or if they want to turn pro.

That’s what I want to bring into this country and I’m hoping that we can get support from different [corporations] who can buy into the idea and believe in it so that we can walk through this journey together.

I love that! When you look at your entire journey so far, do you ever think of what life would have looked like for you if you didn’t get that chance with the Kenyan federation?

Omanyala: Yeah, I think about that a lot and I say it’s a blessing because I don’t know where I would be right now. Maybe I’d be a lab technician somewhere manufacturing medicine. But that didn’t happen so we thank God for that and appreciate God for what we have right now.

Can you talk about how difficult that time was for you and how it helped you grow into the person you are today?

Omanyala: Yeah I had a back problem at some point in 2017. I went to the hospital and [was prescribed] a painkiller but later on, found out that it had a banned substance. So I was out of the sport for 14 months. The federation was trying to fight doping and based on the policies they put in place, I was told ‘You can never represent this country’.

I was fighting [to come back] for like four years and it was really tough. Financially, it was very tough because you have to invest in your physios, your gym, your nutrition, [transportation] fares, you’re paying for the stadium, and at that time I was not working. I was still a student.

Things were very, very tough. But I can say [dealing with] all those challenges really made me who I am today. Now I appreciate how important it is to get a lane in any race. I always tell athletes that anytime you get a lane in a race, it doesn’t matter how big or small the race is, you have to make sure that you use that opportunity well because you never know tomorrow.

During COVID, everything was shut down and nobody knew what would happen. It took months [to be able to race again]—in some countries it took years. So I tell athletes not to joke about the opportunities that they have. I know what these opportunities mean and I know how hard they are to get sometimes, because I was once denied the opportunity to compete.

It taught me a lot and made me realize that you should never forget where you come from. I’ve lived a life without money and I’ve lived a life with money. With just the snap of a finger, things can change. So I tell people just to be humble and appreciate life. You never know what the next minute holds. You might be with someone now and in the next two minutes you hear of something else.

Another lesson I learned is that in life you’re always alone. On your deathbed sometimes you’ll only find two or three people [by your side] so sometimes you have to reduce the number of people around your dining table.

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Ferdinand’s Instagram via Julie Fuster Photography

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Ferdinand’s Instagram via Julie Fuster Photography

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Ferdinand’s Instagram via Julie Fuster Photography

Thank you for sharing that. Fortunately, you did get the opportunity to compete again. Take me back to the Tokyo Games. What do you remember from that experience?

Omanyala: The [Tokyo] Olympics was like my biggest moment. Just three months before that I didn’t know if I would be going to the Olympics but then things happened. It’s a miracle that I was there.

My target was to get to the final, but it was my first Olympics. Sometimes when we set targets we don’t achieve them but we come back stronger. I finished 9th overall. I got to the semifinals and missed the final by like 0.02 seconds. But our sport is one of numbers so you just pick up the lessons and move on. After that, I went ahead and ran the African record so [the experience] was a building block for so many things that happened later.

Would you say that the Tokyo Olympics opened your eyes or reawakened something in you? It seems like your career really started to take off from there.

Omanyala: Yeah, so many things happened before that because when I joined the Olympic camp, I started working with my current coach right now who really understood the game. We did so many things within those 7 weeks in camp and my results started skyrocketing.

That, plus having the opportunity to compete at the Olympics—the biggest stage of any athlete’s career—skyrocketed my performance and boosted my confidence. I had competed with the “who’s who” on the track. It was like I had nothing to fear. I was released to the was an eye-opener and career starter for me.

Paris 2024 is this summer. What would it mean for you to represent Kenya at a second Olympics and how do you think this experience will be different for you?

Omanyala: Getting that opportunity to represent the country in Paris will be a plus for me and I’m so looking forward to that opportunity. The moment that I step into that Olympic Village is when I’ll realize that things are real, just remembering the struggles that I went through...going into the Olympics as one of the contenders is a big thing for me. I’m counting the days and handling each day as it comes going into this season.

Africa has the youngest population and is the fastest-growing continent, yet the Olympic Games have never been hosted there. Do you think that we’ll ever see Africa host an Olympics in our lifetime? If so, what needs to change?

Omanyala: We still haven’t hosted a world championships in athletics so we need to start there. We haven’t even had one Diamond League race in Africa. We need to step up. At the indoor championships, we realized Africa doesn’t have any indoor track. So it’s very difficult for us to compete at that kind of level without all those facilities. But I know we can. South Africa hosted the World Cup before so I know they can host an Olympics. For Kenya, we need to first host a world championships and once we do that then we can try to host an Olympic Games. We still have a long way to go, but I believe we can get there.

Earlier you mentioned switching coaches, when did you officially start working with Geoffrey Kimani?

Omanyala: I started working with him right after the 2023 World Championships in Budapest. That’s why there was a bit of a switch in terms of performance and I ended up finishing the season third with a 9.85 [at the Prefontaine Classic]. But I’ve worked with him before during the Olympic camp in 2021 and I liked his prowess in terms of sprints. I wanted to bring him into a previous camp but there were some issues which I understand. But going into this Olympics I said, I can’t get [to Paris] without him so I made the coaching change.

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Geoffrey Kimani’s Instagram

What are you doing differently with Coach Kimani and how have these changes helped you so far?

Omanyala: This season we’ve taken a completely different approach from the last 7 seasons. In the past I started with endurance runs, then started cutting down, and doing speed. But this time, we started with speed because he says you can’t have speed endurance without speed. One good thing about his program is we never repeat sessions so that makes training interesting. It’s been helpful mentally, physically, and emotionally. The results are very good and I’m excited as we go into the outdoor season.

In what ways has it been helpful emotionally?

Omanyala: Honestly, I’ve never liked training. [There were moments in the past] when I would go to sessions angry and would have to tell myself ‘you have to cool down and just handle this’. I would walk into a session and feel down before the session even started. But now, I get to training and I’m happy and excited. Everything is just right. I have the feeling that everything is okay and I’m ready to handle this.

Previously, I would always look forward to races because if I had a race, my [training ] program would be cut in half and I would have to do less. But now I [look forward ] to training and I want to get better.

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Ferdinand’s Instagram

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Ferdinand’s Instagram

The men’s 100m field is stacked as usual. There’s so much talent and depth, what are your thoughts on the upcoming competition ahead of this season and going into the Olympics?

Omanyala: Whenever I enter the field, I don’t look at my competitors. I don’t want to overthink what’s going to happen. I want to think about what I’m going to do to [improve]. I know it’s a competitive field. I know the Olympics is going to be very competitive. But I have to come with my A-game. I want to come well-prepared. I know my coach is working on that. I’m handling each day as it comes, making sure that I’m better tomorrow than I am today.

Awesome. For our last segment I’ve got a game for you and the theme is “For the Culture”. Pick one Afrobeats or Amapiano?

Omanyala: Afrobeats.

Favorite Afrobeats artist?

Omanyala: That’s a hard one because they release hit after hit. I can’t choose.

Most listened to Afrobeats song at the moment?

Omanyala: That’s a hard one. Maybe “Reason” by Omah Lay.

Favorite Kenyan cuisine?

Omanyala: You know Luhya’s love food so it’s hard to pick one but let me give you my top four. Ugali, chicken, rice, and fish.... oh wait, chapati is also on the list!

Which one can you cook the best?
Omanyala: I know how to cook all of them.

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Ferdinand’s Instagram

Editor’s Note: By Way of Africa is a series committed to highlighting the talent and stories from the African continent and its diaspora. African stories are worth telling, and the culture—all of the languages, tribes, and traditions—is worth celebrating. Embedded in these narratives is a profound testament to the diligence, discipline, and work ethic deeply ingrained in African heritage. Whether born on the continent or dispersed across the globe, the contributions of these stories to society resound uniquely, by way of Africa.