It’s a familiar story. Everlyn Kemboi grew up in Kenya and dreamed of moving to the United States to pursue her education, and the one way she could get there was with her legs. She could run. Top runners are a product of Kenyan culture and a legendary national export.

“Everlyn is one of those kids that can do anything. She’s extremely powerful in every event, extremely fast, can also run great distances. Whatever we throw at her she’s willing to do. She’s a hard worker. She makes coaching pretty easy.” — UVU track coach Scott Houle

Like so many of her countrymen, Kemboi had to run to get to school each day because there is no motorized transportation. Each morning, she arose early to get her younger siblings ready for the day and then they ran barefoot several miles together to school, then home for lunch, then back to school, and home again at the end of the day, always on the run. She guesses she totaled more than two hours per day of running. In the process, she built up her lungs and legs.

She gravitated to competitive running, and eventually it brought her to the U.S., first to Texas and then Arizona and finally to Utah in the fall of 2021. She graduated with a degree in public health from Utah Valley University last month. She also has become one of the top collegiate distance runners in the country.

Heading into this week’s NCAA track and field championships, she has the second fastest time in the nation in the 5,000-meter run and the third fastest in the 10,000. She won both races in the NCAA West region, which served as the semifinals for the NCAA championships.

She has lost only one of six races at the 5,000- and 10,000-meter distances — a second-place finish in the 10,000 to Utah’s Emily Venters in the Stanford Invitational more than two months ago. In the NCAA championships, she will meet Venters again in the 10,000-meter final Thursday night, as well as the defending champion, Alabama’s Mercy Chelangat. Chelangat is also from Kenya, but she and Kemboi didn’t meet until they came to this country several years ago; a long-distance friendship developed.

“We Kenyans are a small community here, so it’s easy to make that connection with them through sports,” says Kemboi.

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Two nights after the 10,000 final, Kemboi, Venters and Chelangat will return for the 5,000-meter final in which they will go up against North Carolina State phenom Katelyn Tuohy, the defending champion and collegiate record holder. Tuohy won the NCAA cross-country title last November; Venters was 12th, Chelangat 16th, Kemboi 19th.

“I’m prepared,” says Kemboi. “(Tuohy) is a strong runner, but I’ve never raced her on the track.”

This will be Kemboi’s final collegiate race. She’s anxious to return to Kenya, but there are miles to go — 9.3, to be exact — before she says goodbye to the U.S. She has wandered far from her original plan. Like others from her region in Kenya, she planned to run for the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP), a popular destination for Kenyan runners since the ’70s.  UTEP couldn’t offer her a scholarship at the time so she enrolled instead at El Paso Community College.

The plan, she explains, was that when she graduated from the community college she would transfer to UTEP. But, as she says, “When I graduated, I had other options.” After Kemboi won the 2018 national junior college cross-country championships, she accepted a scholarship from the University of Arizona.

She stayed at Arizona for one year and never ran a race for the school. Kemboi says coaches urged her to race, but she refused because of ongoing fears about the pandemic. “My father got sick during COVID,” she says. “I was scared.” She says she was removed from the team. She called Chris Shane, a UVU assistant coach at the time who had seen her perform in junior college and recruited her at the time only to lose out to Arizona. UVU offered her a scholarship in the fall of 2021.

“When she first got here that first cross-country season, she couldn’t make our travel team because she was so out of shape,” says Scott Houle, UVU’s head coach and distance coach. “In our first race of the year she finished dead last in an invitational.”

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Kemboi finally made the travel squad for the last meet of the season and won. A week later she finished fourth in the Western Athletic Conference championship, and followed that up with a 13th-place showing in the deeply talented NCAA Mountain Region championship.

Her fitness improved dramatically each week and in the seasons that followed. In 2022, she finished 12th in the 10,000 at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships to earn second-team All-America honors. In the fall she won the NCAA Mountain Region cross-country meet, helping UVU claim its first berth in the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Kemboi placed 19th in the national meet.

“Everlyn is one of those kids that can do anything,” says Houle. “She’s extremely powerful in every event, extremely fast, can also run great distances. Whatever we throw at her she’s willing to do. She’s a hard worker. She makes coaching pretty easy.

“She’s a program starter. You need someone who can get in one-two-three range. She was that young lady. She helped move our team to the NCAAs. All the others were Utah girls. We just needed that one piece of the puzzle.”

Kemboi will return home later this month for the first time in five years. “I have stayed here without seeing my family, and I am very anxious to return home,” she says. She had planned to take a nursing degree home with her, but she says her credits from Arizona “did not transfer” so she switched majors to public health. “My aunt is a nurse, and I want to be like her,” she says.

She also wants to pursue another career in running. “I want to go pro,” she says. “My goal is to go to the Olympics. I’m going to go home and train with a lot of professional runners.”

Says Houle, “She’s been here quite a while and she’s getting homesick. She has said that quite a few times. She’s ready to go home.”

Utah Valley University runner Everlyn Kemboi will be competing in this week’s NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races in Austin, Texas, where she could contend for a title. | Utah Valley University Athletics