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'Ageless Wonder' Bernard Lagat Qualifies For Fifth Olympic Team

Bradley W. Parks
Ex-WSU standout Bernard Lagat gets a hug from third place finisher Paul Chelimo, who is based in Beaverton. Both qualified for the Summer Olympics in the 5000-meters.

A 41-year-old distance runner nicknamed the “ageless wonder” qualified for the Olympics for a fifth time during the final weekend of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team Trials in Eugene. Former Washington State University track star Bernard Lagat finished first in a furious sprint to the finish of the 5000-meters Saturday.Lagat crossed the line in 13:35 in a tactical race that featured other runners with Olympic experience including Portland's Galen Rupp.

"I train with young guys. I don’t believe I’m old," Lagat said after his race. "Because if you believe you’re old, I’m going to run like an old man."

The two other Olympic qualifiers behind Lagat also have Northwest connections. Runner up Hassan Mead attended high school in Puyallup, Washington, and now trains in Eugene with the Oregon Track Club Elite. Third place finisher Paul Chelimo of the U.S. Army trains at the Nike headquarters campus in Beaverton. Rupp could not keep pace in the blistering final lap and finished ninth.

Lagat received a big ovation from the record crowd at Hayward Field as soon as he was introduced. He later said the fondness is mutual since he has competed in memorable races in self-styled Tracktown USA for almost twenty years.

Lagat got a bear hug at the finish line from 25-year-old Chelimo, also Kenyan-American. Chelimo explained he grew up in Kenya "looking up to Bernard Lagat" from afar.

"Age is just a number," said Chelimo at a post-race press conference. But then he could not resist teasing his elder. "Today he won, next time I'll win."

"I am hoping when he retires, I am going to take over," Chelimo said to chuckles from Lagat who was sitting next to him.

Lagat said Saturday that the 2016 track season will be his final one. But he is not planning to retire, just  "move up" to road racing.

Lagat graduated from Washington State University in 2000 and then competed at his first Olympics that summer representing his native Kenya. He took home bronze in the 1500-meters at the Sydney Games and added an Olympic silver medal in the same event four years later at the Athens Games.

In 2005, Lagat announced that he had become a U.S. citizen. He competed for Team USA in the 5000-meters at the 2008 Beijing Games and 2012 London Games. Lagat now trains in Arizona most of the year.