Henry Rono, a Kenyan distance runner who was unable to walk until he was six years old after a serious injury to his right leg as a child, but who broke four world records in just 81 days in 1978, died on Thursday in Nairobi. He was 72 years old.

His death was announced by Athletics Kenya, an amateur athletics association. He died in a hospital, where he had spent 10 days due to an unspecified illness.

Rono was twice denied a chance at Olympic glory in his 20s, when Kenya joined boycotts of the Games in 1976 and 1980. Still, he was celebrated as one of the country’s great athletes.

He made his mark on athletics history in 1978, as a 26-year-old sophomore at Washington State University, when he galloped into the record books for the 3,000, 5,000, 10,000 meters and the 3,000-meter steeplechase, with its 28 barriers and seven waterfalls.

“He was such a powerful guy, big chested, and incredibly efficient,” former Washington State teammate Phil English said in an interview after Rono’s death with The Spokesman-Review newspaper of Spokane, Washington. . “The incredible thing about those world records is the versatility that is needed: the speed for the 3,000 and the steeple skill, and then the further stretches of the 10,000. “You just don’t see that kind of reach.”

Rono’s remarkable success during such a short period made him an object of global fascination in the track world.

“People wanted me to go running everywhere. When I ran in Finland, there was a competition promoter from Italy,” he said in a 1982 interview with Track & Field News. “When I ran in Italy, there was one from Japan, Australia and New Zealand.”

With his low-key personality and apparent immunity to bragging, Rono found the spotlight disorienting. “People wanted me to go from one place to another and from there,” he said. “It was like they didn’t even think I was a human being like them; For them I was an extraordinary person, a machine that they thought could do anything.”

Henry Rono was born Kipwambok Rono on February 12, 1952 in Kiptaragon, a village in Nandi County, Kenya. The Star, a Nairobi newspaper, recently described the region as having “the largest concentration of local and international runners, more than any other region, probably in the world.” Kipchoge Keino, an early inspiration for Rono, who won gold in the 1,500-meter race at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, grew up in a neighboring town.

When he was little, Rono fell off the bicycle his uncle was riding to transport him from his grandmother’s house, breaking his right ankle on the spinning spokes. “For many years, while other children my age were getting stronger and faster, I could only crawl,” he wrote in his memoir, “Olympic Dream” (2010).

When he was finally able to walk, his father died after being scared by a snake while driving a tractor and falling into the path of the plow. Her mother stayed behind to support the family, in part by selling home-brewed beers of two potent alcoholic beverages, chang’aa and busaa.

Rono started running when he completed seventh grade at age 19. At the town’s elementary school, he also met his future wife, Jennifer, with whom he had two children, Calvin and Maureen.

He trained intensively during a period in the Kenyan army and eventually found enough success in running to be included in the national team for the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal.

However, it would never get there because Kenya joined a boycott with other African nations protesting the participation of New Zealand, whose national rugby team was touring apartheid South Africa.

It was a crushing blow. “I thought this guy would come home with two golds,” his idol Keino, who was coaching the Kenyan team at the time, said in a 2022 profile of Rono in The New York Times.

Instead, Rono headed to Pullman, Washington, to compete for Washington State, even though he had never attended high school.

Far from home and in conflict with Kenyan athletic officials, Rono began drinking heavily even as he scaled athletic heights. He suffered further heartbreak when Kenya joined the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Still, at a competition near Oslo in 1981, he overcame a hangover and set a new world record in the 5,000-meter race.

But when Kenya finally returned to the Olympics, in Los Angeles in 1984, Rono was not fit to represent his country. He was spiraling: Money from a contract with Nike, as well as his champion aura, dried up as he wandered around the United States, sleeping at friends’ houses and doing menial jobs, including ringing a bell for the Salvation Army.

“I’ve been to the top of the highest mountain and then to the bottom of the world,” he said in an interview for the 2008 yearbook of track’s governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, now World Athletics. “Now that I look back, I can remember what happened in 1978, but the next eight years are pretty much a blank.”

He finally got sober in the late 1990s and returned to school, studying poetry and creative writing before writing his memoirs. In 2019, he returned to Kenya for the first time since the 1980s and moved with his brother to the same land where they had grown up.

Information about survivors was not immediately available.

Although he detailed his decades of turmoil in the 2008 interview, Rono refused to let the memories linger. At the time, he said he had been satisfied with his work as a special education teacher and coach in Albuquerque.

“What I’m doing in my life now,” he said, “is like a gold medal for me.”

By Sam