(12-Feb) -- Just six days ago University of Alabama teammates Mercy Chelangat and Amaris Tyynismaa were competing in the 3000-meters at the South Carolina Invitational in Columbia. Behind the reliable and steady pacemaking of their teammate Jami Reed who took them through 1800 meters, they were running right about at 9-minute pace, significantly faster than either had run before. When they came to the final lap of the 15-lap race they heard their coach Andy Palmer shouting at them.
PHOTO: Mercy Chelangat of the University of Alabama on her way to winning the 2020 SEC Cross Country Championships in Baton Rouge, La. (photo courtesy of Alabama Athletics)
"You're going to break the school record!" Tyynismaa heard Palmer yell at the top of his lungs. An extra jolt of energy went through the 19 year-old sophomore from Montgomery who won five Alabama (AHSAA Class 4A) state cross country titles for Montgomery Catholic Prep School.
"The energy when we were running was absolutely immaculate," Tyynismaa told Race Results Weekly in an interview via Zoom yesterday. "It was like everyone was screaming, everyone was yelling." She continued: "I was like, 'let's frickin' go!' It was so much fun."
Chelangat, 23, from Kericho, Kenya, led the final lap with Tyynismaa just a step behind. They crossed the finish line in 9:02.54 and 9:03.46, respectively, both bettering the 35 year-old school record of 9:05.94 set by Britain's Liz Lynch who, under her married name of Liz McColgan, would go on to be the 1991 World Athletics 10,000m champion and a winner of the London, New York and Tokyo Marathons. Those marks now rank them #2 and #5, respectively, for this pandemic-shortened, 2021 NCAA indoor season.
"I was talking to coach before the race and I was like, 'what do you think I can run in the 3-K?'" Chelangat recalled asking Coach Palmer. "He was like, 'you can run anything from 9:05 to 9:00.' I was like, 'I don't know if we can really do that.'"
But Palmer had confidence that Chelangat --who last October became the first Alabama woman to win an individual Southeastern Conference (SEC) cross country title in 27 years-- could do it. On January 23 she had run a facility record 15:52.19 for 5000m on the same track. In that race she ran the final 3000 meters in 9:26.7. Coach Palmer knew she was ready.
"Most of the time his predictions are, like, accurate," Chelangat said via Zoom breaking into a smile. "Most of the time he knows how we're going to do. For me, I don't usually think about it so much. So I'm like, whatever. I'm just going to go there and do my thing and whatever the outcome, that's it."
It's a remarkable thing that these two women, who grew up in completely different societies some 8000 miles apart, would end up being teammates on one of the SEC's top-ranked track and field teams. While it would seem predictable that Tyynismaa, one of the most dominant prep athletes in Alabama high school cross country history, would end up at Alabama, she actually never intended to enroll there. Coach Palmer had to make the case.
"Amaris is from Alabama and she's probably been a household name in the state since, gosh, she was in eighth grade," Coach Palmer said, joining his athletes on Zoom from Fayetteville, Ark., where his team will compete in the Tyson Invitational this weekend (Chelangat did not make the trip, however). "Even when I was coaching elsewhere I knew who she was. She was one of the first phone calls I made when I got here. We were up against a lot of big-name schools."
Tyynismaa wasn't so easily persuaded, at least not at first.
PHOTO: Amaris Tyynismaa in her 2021 track team photo for the University of Alabama (photo courtesy of Alabama Athletics)
"I feel like my story is funny because growing up here I always told everybody that I was NOT going to be attending Alabama," Tyynismaa said, looking almost embarrassed. "I was like, I'm not going there. There's no way. Never happening."
But Palmer convinced her to visit the campus in Tuscaloosa and something clicked.
"I feel like the rest is history because I remember visiting campus and I just thought it was beautiful, and I loved the teammates," Tyynismaa said. "Oh my gosh! The girls, like, I felt a connection, and I loved Sam Palmer (Will's wife, Samantha, who is an assistant coach), Coach Palmer, and it felt like the right fit."
Chelangat transferred to Alabama after spending a year at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in Edinburg. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of her older brother, Vincent Kiprop, already an established distance star for Alabama. Kiprop was the SEC Cross Country champion in both 2017 and 2019, and was the SEC 5000m and 10,000m champion in 2018. He still has 2021 outdoor eligibility remaining which will be his final season for the team.
"When I first came here my brother was already here, so he already knew, like, the place and showing me around," Chelangat said. "I knew this was, like, the best place for me because of his experience and what he used to tell me when I was back in Kenya. When I just came here it wasn't so hard to adapt because everyone here is so friendly. I just connected with everybody."
The two women have different strengths --Chelangat prefers hard long runs while Tyynismaa prefers 200-meter repeats-- but they make great teammates. Their affection for each other is obvious. On Tyynismaa's Instagram page there is a short video of them leaving the track in South Carolina arm-in-arm, supporting each other and sharing their success.
"I remember during cross country and seeing my teammates doing so amazing, and it just inspires you," Tyynismaa explained. "When you're around people who are at such a high level it makes you want to be better. Being with Mercy --I love Mercy-- we're all so different, we all have different personalities, but we just jive and it just works. I just look forward to going to practice; it's my favorite part of the day."
Under Coach Palmer's program, both women have improved and have the potential to get even faster. Chelangat has dropped her 3000m time from 10:21.05 in 2019 to 9:16.38 last year to her current school record of 9:02.54. She moved up from tenth at the SEC Cross Country Championships in 2019 to winning last year.
"When it comes to being the SEC champion I didn't, like, know I could do that," Chelangat admitted. "I didn't do that before. When it happened I was like, yeah, that's it."
Tyynismaa's best 3000m time in 2020 was a respectable 9:44.63, but she dropped that time by a whopping 41 seconds in just one year. She said that she had upped her level of commitment to her training and her team, and had gotten more serious.
"What Coach Palmer has preached since my freshman year is consistency, doing all the right things --recovery, sleeping, eating right-- and I feel like from freshman year 'till now that's something that I've had to learn, something that I've been doing," Tyynismaa said. "I think I would credit a lot of my success now to that, and just being around my girls and the atmosphere. It motivates me and makes me want to work hard."
Palmer agrees. He said the the whole team environment is focused on student-athletes supporting each other, fostering growth, and being accountable.
"It's not just these two, but it's kind of the whole group," Palmer said. "What I think Mercy and Amaris have done is representative of kind of the strength of the team. Everyday at practice is an adventure. Like Amaris was saying we have a lot of different personalities and a lot of different backgrounds in the group. But somehow they just kind of find a way to work well together, to mesh together."
Looking ahead, both athletes hope to spend more time in Fayetteville. After this weekend's Tyson Invitational, the team will be back for the SEC Indoor Championships on February 25 - 27, and with some luck the NCAA Division I Indoor Championships at the same venue on March 11 - 13. However, the team might also go to the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships in Stillwater, Okla., on March 15. The NCAA postponed those championships from last November due to the pandemic. Head Coach Dan Waters is still thinking about the best course of action.
"You're asking the million dollar question," Palmer told Race Results Weekly. "That's the popular question amongst our staff. I don't know. As we've said we've got good problems to figure out."
Chelangat is always happy to race at a championships for her team. But when pressed, she but made no secret where her heart is.
"I really do love cross country; I like cross country more than track," she said with a giggle. "That's what I can say."