It has long been said by coaches that competition brings out the best in athletes. That is not just limited to the confines of the field of play, but in practices all around the country. For South Alabama cross country runners Kirami Yego and Teagan Flanagan, that has been the case this fall as the duo has used a special bond to bring out the best in each other out on the course.

The two teammates come from similar, yet different, backgrounds. Outside of the fact that they come from different countries, Kenya and the United States, the two runners are both relatively new to the sport. Yego didn’t begin his training until about eight months prior to his arrival in the United States. Just two months into his training, he was already ranked as the second-best runner in his group. 

“We started recruiting Kirami a few months out from his January 2020 arrival, during September I believe,” South Alabama cross country head coach Parker Cowles said. “A contact over in Kenya told us he was raw and undeveloped, but had shown a real talent for the sport.  It is my understanding that it is not uncommon for Kenyan athletes to start training seriously and take up track & field until their late teenage years or early 20s. What Americans sometimes don’t understand, though, is running is a part of many Kenyan’s daily lives from a very young age. While he’s been an athlete for a short time, he has been using running as a mode of transportation or for fun most of his life.”

Genetics has also played an important role in Yego’s almost immediate taking to the sport, as his father was a successful professional runner.

“I was young when he started running, so I didn’t know much about him, but when I was around seven, I became aware of his running,” Yego said. “The first race I knew of him running was in Salt Lake City, Utah, which he won with a time 2:08:33 in 2011. He’s raced five marathons during his career, three of which he finished second and two that he won. He continues to motivate me and reminds me that I am capable of being a good runner because I am his son, so I have the genes to be able to run.”

Flanagan also got a relatively late start in the sport after transitioning from football to cross country during his junior year of high school.

“I started running in 2018,” Flanagan said. “I played football before that, but one of my best friends asked me to run cross country. I decided to give the sport a shot and I ended up getting second place at the state meet. I discovered I was good at running. I got some scholarship offers and ended up going to Hutchinson [Kan.] CC. I started training every day and it became a habit. I was a decent runner my first year there, but the summer prior to my sophomore year, I decided to build up and get stronger. I’ve just progressed every year.”

Both runners have made the transition pretty seamlessly and had a lot of early success on the course. Last season as a true freshman, Yego was named both the Sun Belt Conference Freshman and Newcomer of the Year after earning first-team all-league honors with a third-place finish at the conference championship meet where he led the Jaguars to the program’s first Sun Belt title since 2014 and ninth overall. He was the first Jaguar to cross the line in three of South’s four meets during the fall, and recorded a new personal-best at the SBC Championship after posting a time of 24:39.1 in the 8k race.

Competing in his first-ever cross country race during the season-opening home meet, the Azalea City Classic, Yego won the men’s 5k race with a time of 15:23.6, which was 16 seconds faster than the next closest runner.

Like Yego, Flanagan had a solid 2020 campaign at Hutchinson Community College where he was a first-team All-America honoree after finishing fifth at the 2020 National Junior College Athletic Association DI Cross Country Championships, one of six All-America honors he earned at HCC during his junior college career. He finished inside the top 5 in all five of his cross country events during the season and was named the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Association’s NJCAA Division I National Male Athlete of the Week on Oct. 8, as well as Jayhawk Conference Men’s Cross Country Runner of the Week and the National Junior College Athletic Association Runner of the Week, after crossing the line first and posting the 11th-fastest 8,000-meter run time in Blue Dragon history (25:07) at the Allen Community College Red Devil Relays.

“It goes without saying they are both talented and both have terrific work ethics,” Cowles noted. “They put in a lot of miles and they do it fast. Beyond that, Kirami is a disciplined and calculated racer but he also has no fear. He has a terrific attitude where he wants to be one of the top cross country runners in the NCAA. He lays everything on the line when he races, but once he crosses the finish line it’s in the past. His success doesn’t go to his head or make him overconfident, and when he occasionally falls short of his performance goals he does not internalize it or take it personally. He just gets ready for the next race. He is confidently self-assured in his ability, but never arrogant. He is always professional in his approach.

“Teagan has an attitude that has really enhanced the environment on the team. He can be silly at times, and admittedly, he has caused me to roll my eyes a few times at practice, but he has such a disarming nature that you can’t help but love him. He goes about running in such a way that you know he is enjoying himself, while simultaneously conveying that he takes this sport very seriously. The guys on the team respond to that, and Kirami has responded to that. One of the best things about this men’s team is we have a terrific culture; we have strong team leaders in the senior class, and our culture of positivity has been in place for a while. But Teagan made it stronger when he joined the team in August. It is hard to describe just how he does it, but he breaks down walls and brings people together.”

So far this season, Yego and Flanagan have led the way finishing as the top two runners for the Jaguar men in each of the first three meets. Yego has set a new personal best each time out this fall, with the Kapenguria, Kenya, native being selected as the Sun Belt Conference Runner of the Week each time to become the first three-time winner of the league honor in a season since Louisiana’s Stanley Limoh, who accomplished the feat on three occasions during the 2017 season. He is the first male runner at South to earn the honor three times in a season since Micah Tirop, who did so on four occasions in 2008. Along with Tirop, the freshman is only the third Jaguar male runner to earn the award three or more times in a single season, joining Vincent Rono, who did so four times in 2005. 

Flanagan has also been a key contributor for the Jaguars, recording a pair of top-10 finishes in his first two races at the Azalea City (second) and at the South Region Preview (ninth) while setting a new 8k personal best in his last outing at the 20th Annual Live in LOU Classic with a time of 24:24.

The duo’s individual success can be attributed to how each has made the other better.

“I feel what makes me successful running right now is having a teammate as strong as me to train with,” Yego stated. “Last year, I didn’t have a teammate that was as strong of a runner as Teagan is. He always pushes me and I push him. I feel that is why we are in the places we are right now. Teagan is one of the strongest runners that I’ve ever trained with, so on our long runs we are able to keep up the same pace. After about 10 miles, I try to push harder, but he’s still able to keep up with me. When you have a strong teammate like him, you don’t get tired as easily during long runs, which can happen if you don’t have someone there to push you. We make each other stronger.”

“It’s fun to go out and run with him every day,” Flanagan said. “You never know what to expect. Coach puts us together for every workout. There are some days where you feel amazing and the pace is there, and then there are some where I’m struggling, but those are the days you get better. Our relationship has played a huge part. Not everyone has a teammate or team who can really push them the way that Kirami is capable of pushing me. You’re only as good as your team or your teammates. If it is just you training by yourself, you’re never getting pushed. You’re just comfortable and can’t ever get to that next level. If he’s not running well, there’s no such thing as him relaxing because he doesn’t want me to drop him. On your worst days, you have to find a way to grit it out and be tough. That translates to a five-mile race or a 5k. You don’t panic. It’s been amazing to train with him. We have a unique level of competitiveness where we work together, but at the same time we’re not scared to go at it against each other. It makes us stronger.”

During their brief time together in Mobile, Yego and Flanagan have developed a close relationship that has aided in bonding the two Jaguars together.

“When he first arrived here, we were just texting each other,” Yego said. “I had a friend in Oklahoma who knew him and told me how good of a person he was. When we met, I found out that was very true. Now, we cook and eat meals together before races. He’s just a good friend.”

“It’s a genuine bond,” noted Flanagan for the relationship the two have developed. “We’re good friends and we have fun with each other. It’s pretty simple. Along with cooking dinners together, we hang out and play soccer together sometimes.”

Cowles has also seen up front the role their friendship and relationship has played in each’s success.

“They push each other and play off each other,” the Jaguar coach said. “They see in each other a real drive to be successful. They respect that common motivation and they are working together to achieve lofty goals. I don’t think there is another nation or culture on the planet that is as different from the United States as Kenya is. These guys are both hardy ranchers from the plains, but outside of that their upbringings could not have been more different. Through their friendship they have found a lot of common ground. When it comes to running they have shared goals and aspirations. That friendship has emboldened them as athletes and helped them develop within the sport.”

South Alabama is set to compete at their final regular season meet on Friday morning at the FSU XC Invite/Pre-Nationals in Tallahassee, Fla., but in two weeks, the Jaguars will look to capture the program’s 10th league title and repeat as Sun Belt Conference champions for the first time ever when they host the conference meet on Friday, Oct. 29, at Brookley by the Bay. As they have done throughout the fall, both Yego and Flanagan will bring out the best in each other as they help the Jaguar men achieve that goal.

“I would love for myself and Kirami to go one-two at the conference meet,” Flanagan said. “If we are able to accomplish that goal, it will give us a huge advantage. I really want a ring and as a team we want to win conference, so if we can do that as a duo it will play a huge part in helping us win conference.”

For more information about South Alabama athletics, check back with www.usajaguars.com, and follow the Jaguars at www.twitter.com/WeAreSouth_JAGS. Season tickets for all Jaguar athletic events can be purchased by calling (251) 461-1USA (1872).

Join the Finish Line Club, the track and field and cross country specific support club of the Jaguar Athletic Fund.  All donations to the Finish Line Club go directly to support the South Alabama track and field/cross country programs.  For more information on how you can join visit:  jaguarathleticfund.com/finishlineclub.


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