Did that just happen? Nicholas Bett had heads turning at the Beijing world champs as he stormed through the rounds to take 400m hurdles gold. SPIKES talks to Hennie Kotze, the South African guru behind the incredible Kenyan success.

“It is great to see a 400m hurdler run a near perfect race. It feels like watching a beautiful music concert.” 

How much sweeter the music must have sounded for Hennie Kotze, who watched one of his symphonists become world champion in Beijing. The South African is the conductor behind Nicholas Bett, 25, and Boniface Tumuti, 23, the Kenyan duo who tore up the formbook at last month’s World Championships.

In recent times, world-class Kenyan 400m hurdlers have been about as rare as hen’s teeth. They had no starters in the event at Moscow 2013. Erick Keter, who finished fifth at the 1993 World Championships, having posted in a national record of 48.24 in the semis, is a rare exception.

Yet for generations, Kenyans had dominated the steeplechase, the crazed older cousin of the 400m hurdles. The raw talent has always existed; it just needed some careful refinement. Kotze – who had guided South African LJ Van Zyl to gold medals at the ‘02 World Juniors and ‘06 Commonwealths, and Cornel Fredericks to the 2014 Commonwealth and African titles – has proven himself the man to hone the potential.

Nicholas Bett and Boniface Tumuti ()

The Kenyan pair training in Finland earlier this summer

Kotze was identified by Finnish agent Jukka Harkonen at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, and was only happy to help. Bett and Tumuti joined his squad of hurdlers in South Africa last November. Their PBs at the time were modest: 49.03 and 49.25 respectively, ranking them 25th and 36th in the world. Nonetheless he was instantly impressed with the pair in training.

“I liked their fighting spirit, natural endurance and coordination during difficult training sessions,” he explains. “I also liked their humble and disciplined personalities. They were hungry for success. After then I knew we had something special and that we could surprise the athletics world.”

Following these initial sessions, Kotze maintained email contact with his young Kenyan charges and worked closely with the assistant coach, Vincent Kiilu, who spent many hours in direct contact with the pair. It is Kiilu who Kotze says deserves most of the credit for their success.

Kotze – who recently took up a new coaching role in Saudi Arabia – saw the progress his two Kenyan athletes had made under Kiilu at a training camp in Pajulahti, Finland, earlier in the summer. There they added the finishing touches to Bett’s gold medal challenge by examining footage of two-time Olympic champion and former world record holder Edwin Moses (anyone else thinking of another Kenyan who claimed gold in Beijing with the help of YouTube?).

Nicholas Bett and Boniface Tumuti ()

Diagonally L-R: Bett, Kotze, Tumuti and Kiilu

“Both of them can hurdle fluently with both legs, but we needed time to perfect it in a race,” explains Kotze. “I asked Nicholas to study video clips of Edwin Moses over and over. In some races Nicholas could manage 13 strides to hurdle ten, but he needed more races and to have the confidence to do it at a major event.”

Bett wiped 0.74 from his lifetime best to win the Kenyan trials in 48.29 in early August. Kotze says that Bett’s time and technique pointed towards bigger things at the world champs.

“In Nicholas’ case I knew he would be able to do something special, because of his training results and at Kenyan Trials he ran 13 strides to hurdle ten [a sign of strength, composure and race awareness]. That proved to us he could be a medal contender in Beijing.”

During the world championships, Kotze was in constant WhatsApp communication with Kiilu and his athletes, getting them to go through on warm-up routines, focus points and visualisation.

From the first round it was clear that the Kenyan pair would prove a threat. Bett won the opening heat in 48.37. Tumuti followed with victory in heat two in a PB 48.79. In the semis, Tumuti finished first in another lifetime best 48.29; Bett advanced to the final by placing second in 48.54 behind Olympic silver medallist Michael Tinsley.

Nicholas Bett ()

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Running blind in lane nine in the final, Bett came off the final bend marginally in front. He launched his winning move like a chess Grandmaster, surging through the final 100m and away from Russian Denis Kudryavtsev to win his country’s first ever global gold medal in a sprints or hurdles event. His winning time was a WL PB NR 47.79 (for those non-fluent in athletics speak that’s world leading, personal best, national record) – the fastest time in the world for two years. Tumuti came home fifth in 48.33.

“I am so happy that they pulled it off and performed on the big stage,” Kotze adds. “To perform like they did at a major event proved to us their guts, winning character and temperament. I was emotional, crying from happiness. I will cherish this moment for as long as I live.”

Kotze is adamant that if the pair can correct mistakes, they can run even faster. He predicts consistent sub-48 second performances from both in future, and believes they have paved the way for more 400m hurdles success for Kenya and beyond.

“Without doubt [there are many more Kenyan 400m hurdlers]” he says. “Nicholas’ brother Haron Koech, who also worked on our programme, progressed to the semi final in Beijing with a personal best of 49.38. However, I think there is the same potential in other African countries. They just need to be discovered and coached.”