KABARNET, Kenya- Paul Tergat’s story is unusual in many ways. For example, unlike most of his fellow athletes, the Olympic champion did not discover his knack for running long distances until adulthood. But the most amazing part of Tergat’s career is what he credits for its start: free school meals. According to Tergat, the free meals he received as a child did more to help him achieve success than anything else.
Born in 1969 to a family of 17 children in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Tergat recalls going for days without a proper meal. This omnipresent hunger made the three-mile walk to school seem unbearable. “Without food,” he said, “it was very difficult to walk to school, let alone concentrate on our studies.”
That all changed in 1977 when the World Food Program (WFP) introduced a school meal program in his area that provided students with a free school lunch every day. These lunches gave him the energy to focus on his studies, and to not only walk, but run the three miles between school and home.
After he finished high school, Tergat joined the Kenyan Air Force. It was here that he discovered his talent for long-distance running. In the following years, he left competitors in the dust, winning-between 1993 and 2000-an astounding 13 World Cross Country Championships, two World Half Marathon Championships and two Olympic silver medals (one in Atlanta and one in Sydney). In 2003, Tergat set a new world record at the Berlin Marathon by finishing a full 43 seconds faster than the previous fastest time. He held onto this record for four years, during which he also became a winner of the New York City Marathon in 2005.
Amidst all of his athletic success, Tergat never forgot the aid initiative that had helped him achieve his dreams. In 2004, he became a WFP Ambassador Against Hunger, promising to promote the school meals program that had allowed him to run those first three miles.
In addition to his work with the WFP, he has also established his own organization, the Paul Tergat Foundation – dedicated to helping African children succeed in life by providing community building programs and access to basic necessities. Of his philanthropic work, Tergat said: “As sports men and women, it is important for all of us to use our privileged positions to raise awareness about the challenges that some of the less fortunate among us have to face.”
This past month, Tergat continued in his role as advocate by traveling to Washington D.C., where he encouraged senators to provide more funding to the McGovern-Dole school meals program, which provides lunches to schools in Kenya and other developing nations. But more than just an advocate, Tergat was there as living testament that food aid works – and can work miracles.
– Rebecca Beyer