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US Pins Gold Medal Hopes on Kenya-Born Runner

Experts at the Olympic Games in Beijing say for the first time in more than a century, the United States has a chance to win gold medals in the middle-distance running events of 1,500 and 5,000 meters. These hopes rest in large part on Bernard Lagat who was born in Kenya, but now runs for the U.S. team. VOA's Scott Bobb in Beijing reports that nevertheless, Lagat retains strong ties to Kenya.

Middle-distance runner Bernard Lagat says he hopes to win a gold medal in Beijing in order to fulfill a promise he made to his mother four years ago when he won a silver medal at the Athens games.

"In 2004, I told her that I just came in second," he said. "She told me your time will come and that is going to be in the next Olympics and you will win gold. And I promised her that I am going to work extra hard to get it."

Lagat won the silver medal in Athens and a bronze medal in the 2000 Sydney Games while running for Kenya. But he switched to the U.S. team after becoming a U.S. citizen three years ago.

He won the 1,500 meter event at the World Championships in Osaka last year. And he said he felt the same pride hearing the U.S. national anthem played for his victory as he did hearing the Kenyan national anthem before.

Lagat says he understands that some Kenyans might be upset about his move to the U.S. team, but he has no regrets.

"My loyalty is for the country that I am representing right now and that is the United States," he said. "And I am feeling really happy that I am part of the American culture. I am proud of the American revolution in track and field at the moment which is really going so well."

Lagat, 33, was born in a village near Kapsabet, in Kenya's northwestern Nandi District. As a boy he tended cattle for his family of 10.

He says his sister, Kenya national running champion Mary Chepkemboi, inspired him to run and even bought him his first pair of shoes when he was 12 years old.

He went to local schools until 1996 when he won a scholarship to attend college in the northwestern U.S. state of Washington.

After graduation in 2001, Lagat began to run competitively and won more than two dozen races at the grand-prix level. He says he decided to obtain U.S. citizenship after getting married and settling down in America.

But Lagat has not forgotten his roots. Every year, his foundation pays school fees for less fortunate Kenyan children.

"It is a way of giving back to my community back home," Lagat said. "At the same time, running and becoming successful in America also inspires the young American kids to take up athletics and be as good as Bernard Lagat."

Lagat downplays all the hard work needed to be a winner in track and field. He says only that he has been fortunate.

"My journey has been really successful," said Lagat. "One, I have had my degrees. At same time I have been able to run two Olympics. And I live in America. I have my family. I am so happy. So it is a dream that a little boy from Kenya dreamed about and finally it came through."

But Lagat says life is not all about winning, and if he loses in Beijing he will congratulate the winner. Nevertheless, he says he plans to keep on running competitively for several more years.