This is Stuart Weir’s piece with Mary Moraa. Mary Moraa moved from 400 meters to the 800 meters and has made an incredible move from the one lapper to the two lapper, and in less than three years, takes gold at the World Champs. This is her story.
The women’s 800m at the Budapest World Championship was one of the most eagerly awaited races. Would the Olympic champion, Athing Mu, run, and in what kind of form would she be after hardly racing all year? After medalling at the previous World Championships and the Olympics, could Keely Hodkinson win her first global gold? And what about Mary Moraa? In the end, it was the Kenyan who triumphed.
Mary’s early life was challenging, with both her parents dying when she was a child. She grew up with her grandparents in Kisii in western Kenya – which has earned her the nickname the Kisii Express. Like so many Kenyans, Mary Moraa started running in primary school, but, in her words, there was “no support” at that stage, and it was only when she reached high school that she started running more seriously, being selected in 2017 for the Kenyan team in the World Under 18 championships, in Nairobi. She finished second in the 400m in 53.31. The following year, she was 5th in the World U20s in Finland, again at 400m. She also enjoyed playing football when it did not clash with athletics. She told me that as far as the Premier League was concerned, Chelsea was “her team”! She credits her school principal for helping her athletic development, linking her with her first coach, and beyond that, treating her like his own daughter. In an interview for World Athletics, she said that it was a great sadness for her that her parents did not live to see her success.
Mary Moraa is the queen of the 800m, photo by World Athletics
In 2019, she ran the 400m at the Doha World Championships, reaching the semi-final and finishing fifth in 52.11. The race proved to be a pivotal moment. She recalled: “I was given lane nine, and I was not comfortable with that because I knew the race would be between athletes in lanes 3,4,5 and 6. I knew it would be hard to run a good time from lane 9”.
She had a talk with Hellen Obiri, from the same community in Kenya, who had become a friend. Hellen’s advice was to stop running 400s and to start learning to run the 800m. With the pandemic effectively wiping out the 2020 season, she had time to train for the longer distance. Mary remains really grateful for Obiri’s help: “Hellen was the first elite athlete to talk to me and help me. Hellen gave me advice on the way I should train and perform, and I would learn a lot from her. She was the person who gave me my first spikes and the training kit. She is my mentor.
Mary made the Kenya team for the Tokyo Olympics at 800m, reaching the semi-final, where she ran 2:00.47 for third place. With 14 women running sub 2, Mary was nowhere near making the final but was happy to learn from the experience: “It was my first time competing at 800m at a big event and the first time seeing the big names like Athing Mu and Keely Hodgkinson. So I was OK. I didn’t feel disappointed but came back and sat down with my coach to talk about it”. In 2019, Alex Sang – who had coached his wife, Milcah Chemos, to a world steeplechase title in 2013 –. had become her coach, in fact, both more than a coach: “My coach gives me the programme, and he is supporting me. He advises me on how I can nurture my talent to run more and develop over the next four to five years. He advises me how to run 800m. But beyond athletics, he is like my father, and we talk about many things”.
When we spoke late in 2023, it was a tough training week: Monday 15K, Tuesday 12-13K, but by Friday, up to 18K, along with exercises and work in the gym. Speed work will come after Christmas.
By the time the 2022 World Championships in Oregon came around, Mary had a lot more experience, having, for example, won the Rabat and Stockholm Diamond League 800m races. In Oregon, she was second in her heat and won the semi-final. In the final, she ran a big PB of 1:56.71 but was only third behind Mu (1:55.30) and Hodgkinson (1:56.38), but she was not disappointed, explaining: “I did not know if I was going to get any medal in Oregon – even coach was not sure how I would do – so it was great for me to get a podium place and to run a 1:56. I was very happy because coach had told me I would reach the final, but I think the medal was a surprise to him”.
Mary Moraa wins the Commonwealth Games in 2022, photo by English Athletics
There was no time to rest as Mary was due to cross the Atlantic and run in the Commonwealth Games just eight days later. Mary took gold in the Commonwealth Games 800m in an extraordinary race, going through the bell in the lead in 56.8 seconds but by 500m had dropped to last, then fourth after 600m, taking a winning lead only in the final 100m
The result was
1 Mary Moraa (Kenya) 1:57.07
2 Keely Hodgkinson (England) 1:57.40
3 Laura Muir (Scotland) 1:57.87
To add to the intrigue, between the semi-final and final Mary had run a heat of the Commonwealth 400m.
Mary explained to me that her strange tactics were not intentional. “I was tired because I had just flown from Oregon to Birmingham. I had planned to run a 57-58 first lap, but it was quicker, so I was tired after that lap. I felt that my body was not moving well after the first 400 metres. But when I reached the point where there were 300 metres to the finish, I said ‘let’s go’. I thought maybe I can get a medal in front of my coach (because, you know, normally the coach is not there when I run outside of Kenya), and suddenly I found strength from nowhere”.
She explained that she had extra motivation to help her coach: “My coach was in team Kenya working with Abel Kipsang and me. And the coach was disappointed because Abel did not get a medal in the World Championships and also not in Birmingham [finishing 4th behind Hoare, Cheruiyot and Wightman]. So I was thinking, what am I going to do to help him? I was like, ‘I will go after 600 metres. Maybe I can get a medal. I was not at my best, but I remembered my coach. And it’s the way we train in Kenya. And so I started to rely on my faith so that God can help”. Like so many Kenyans, Mary talks naturally about her faith in God with statements like “When you believe in God, everything is possible” and “I trust in God. In my training and anything I do, I put my God first”.
Mary Moraa, Budapest 2023, photo by Kevin Morris
You might say that in Tokyo and Oregon, she was serving her apprenticeship, and by Budapest 2023, she had come of age, and she was ready: “I think in Budapest, I was very well prepared. I knew it was going to be very difficult because everything was there, Keely was there. Many good athletes were there, and they were all in good shape. I knew anybody could win. So, it was just a case of patience from the start. I wanted a medal, and I thought, ‘Any medal will be OK for me, for my coach, and for my country’. I had told my coach, whichever medal I will win – bronze, silver or gold – I will be thankful”. She admitted that all the social media speculation beforehand about whether Athing Mu would run or not was a distraction.
Mary Moraa takes the gold at 800m in Budapest 2023, photo by World Athletics
Back to the race and, Mary was surprised that no one wanted to take in on: “After 600 metres, we were running together, and nobody wanted to make a move. Even when we reached the final 100 metres, we were still together. I just told myself to be patient, and with 70 metres to go, then I made my move”.
After the race, she commented: “I am pleased to get the gold this time and become the world champion. After bronze last year I wanted to improve and I have. Everyone in the final was so fast that I knew I would have to have a fast finish. I came from a long way behind but I managed to do it. Since last year, me and my coach have been talking and working a lot, changing some things. My coach is a kind of a role model to me, and this is why I have shown such confidence this season”. She then added her delight that Beatrice Chepkoech had just finished second in the steeplechase, “I am so happy for her. We are very good friends. I just want to get back to the track and celebrate together with her”. Earlier in her life she had had a poster of Beatrice on her bedroom wall. Now they were winning medals together.
When the season ended she told me that she had gone back to where she grew up – “I like to see the cows at home”. Otherwise, she said she liked to swim and just chill. She also mentioned dancing – perhaps developing a new victory dance – which has become a trademark. She may need one in Paris.