Chirchir finding early success after difficult road to UTRGV track and field program

EDINBURG — After graduating from high school in his hometown of Eldoret, Kenya, in 2014, Abraham Chirchir spent more than two years training in pursuit of his dreams.

From early in his high school career, Chirchir aspired to run at an American university. But coming from a poor family, Chirchir faced doubt about whether he had the resources and ability to post a qualifying time. He watched his high school classmates progress through and graduate from Kenyan universities as he continued to hold out hope of competing in the United States.

“Life has not been easy to me,” Chirchir said. “When you look at the gap between the family background and where the dreams are, somebody can tell that it was very impossible.”

Fortunately for Chirchir, a cousin in Nairobi supported him financially, helping cover expenses like SAT fees. In 2016, Chirchir posted a mark strong enough to put him on the radar of UTRGV coach Darren Flowers.

Now a freshman at UTRGV, Chirchir is reaching his ambitions. He earned WAC Freshman of the Year during both the indoor and outdoor track and field seasons and this week will be one of just two UTRGV athletes to compete in the NCAA Championships West Preliminary Round. He will race in the semifinals of the 10,000-meter run at 11 tonight on the campus of Sacramento State University.

“I had to crawl and push toward my dreams, because I just knew that one day I would fulfill it,” Chirchir said. “I can tell you that day I made it, everybody was like, ‘Woah, you know what you are doing.’”

His performance at UTRGV has proven as much. On May 12, Chirchir won the WAC Championship in the 5,000 run with a time of 14 minutes, 54.45 seconds. On May 10, he finished second in the 10,000 run with a 31:46.10.

He punched his ticket to the NCAA regionals with his showing at the Raleigh Relays in March, running the 10,000 in 29:36.39 — the second-fastest time in program history.

“He’s an experienced racer, he’s mature beyond his years, and he has a big engine,” Flowers said. “So he’s highly competitive, he wants to win, and I think more than anything, he has the heart of a champion. I don’t want to take very much credit for what he’s doing. It’s really on him.”

Though the results came quickly, Chirchir said he faced challenges in his transition to the United States. The culture in the Rio Grande Valley was very different from what he had grown used to in Kenya, and balancing training with class was a new source of struggle.

“The first three or four days, everything was unique. I was like, ‘Can I really make it in the United States?’” Chirchir said. “Life was actually hard. But the more the days were going, that’s when I knew that everything was going to be OK.”

Chirchir said Flowers comforted him with assurances that most international students face the same anxieties upon arriving to their new universities.

Flowers coached at Division II West Texas A&M for nine seasons before taking the reins at UTRGV last June, and he said he has extensive experience with international recruits. He heard about Chirchir from friends and coaches in Kenya, and he said he could glean from video that Chirchir was a “next-level type of talent.”

“I’ve had Kenyan athletes my whole career, and the first semester and the first year is always a learning experience,” Flowers said. “It’s a big transition. It’s a big culture shock. We do things a lot differently here in America. For him to be as successful as he’s been this early on is really a good thing. I think once he gets fully adapted to the culture and just the routine of everything, he’s going to feel more comfortable and just be able to take off.”

Flowers said Chirchir’s chance to run against elite competition at the NCAA regionals will be a powerful learning experience. Only the top 12 of 48 competitors will advance to the finals next month in Eugene, Oregon, and Chirchir is seeded 46th.

With aims of continuing his running career even beyond UTRGV, Chirchir said the regional opportunity and the accolades he’s amassed as a freshman all represent progress.

“I’m much excited, because I’m heading toward my goals and where I need to be,” Chirchir said. “It’s given me more confidence and keeps me going each and every day. The more I win, the more it motivates me in training.”