2023 T&FN Women’s Athlete Of The Year — Faith Kipyegon

Kipyegon’s body of work in ’23 — 2 world titles, 3 World Records — was a wee bit o’ alright. (VICTOR SAILER/PHOTO RUN)

A PERFECT SEASON? Certainly on the track it was. Faith Kipyegon put together a campaign for the ages in ’23: undefeated, recordbreaking, awe-inspiring. No one will be surprised that the 29-year-old Kenyan mother has earned our Woman’s Athlete Of The Year honors by an overwhelming margin.

Kipyegon entered the season with her status as a legend already assured, thanks to the 1500m gold medals she won at Rio ’16, London ’17, Tokyo ’21, Eugene ’22 and the No. 1 World Ranking she earned in each of those years.

Yet she ran as hungry as ever in ‘23, committed to leaving an even bigger legacy in the sport. As she said at the World Championships, “I was chasing history.” Her track racing season didn’t start until May, when she opened up in the Doha DL 1500. Not bothering to follow the rabbit on a windy day, she won with a 58.7 final lap. Impressive as her world-leading 3:58.57 was, it did nothing to prepare her fans for what followed.

A month later in Florence, Italy, where Rome’s Golden Gala DL had been moved because of track construction, Kipyegon put together a race to remember, hitting mind-blowing splits of 62.8, 2:04.2 and 3:05.28. A 58.8-second last lap put her ahead of the Wavelight and she became the first woman to crack 3:50. Her 3:49.11 cut 0.96 off Genzebe Dibaba’s WR.

“I didn’t expect to run a World Record,” she said. “I was looking to run a world lead, which was 3:54. When I heard the bell, I was feeling that I could still push more than that. The fans were cheering, that’s why I was pushing the last 400, knowing that I had left the Wavelight behind and everything was possible in front. I was just focusing myself toward that finishline.

“I believed in the training I did and my coach told me everything was possible. My coach told me I was in the best shape ever.”

A week later, in Paris, she took on the 5000, a distance she had not raced in 8 years (and then only twice). “I know there are very strong ladies at 5000, but I’m just going to run my race and see how strong my body is and see what is possible,” she said. Everyone saw. Kipyegon burned through the 12½ laps in 14:05.20, slicing 1.42 off that WR. She became the first woman to hold both standards since ancient times, when Italy’s Paola Pigni held both for a brief 18-day period in ’69.

That record result stunned even her: “This was really crazy. I can say I’m so happy. I’m emotional. Right now I don’t know what to say. I didn’t have any plan in mind—just coming here and enjoying the race and enjoying the event after 8 years. It was amazing running that fast. I had a personal best time of 14:31 and I told my manager, ‘If I run a time of 14:20, I will be happy.”

Her next race came in Nairobi. She had a bye to the Budapest 1500 as defending champion, but she had to show her country that she could win a Trials race at 5000. She did that easily, clocking 14:53.90 at altitude.

Then came Monaco on July 21, and another appointment with history. Again running alone once the rabbit dropped at 1000, she hurtled around the track at speeds never seen before in a mile race (400 splits of 62.6, 2:04.6, 3:06.8). She crossed in a stunning 4:07.64, becoming the first woman under 4:10 while slicing a massive 4.69 off the old mark. It marked the first time in modern history that the women’s mile mark came close to being equivalent to the 1500 standard (our math says it’s worth 3:49.30), and Kipyegon became the first to ever hold the 1500/1M/5000 records simultaneously.

She was hard-pressed to pick out one factor that keyed her World Record binge. “I have been doing all my training, as I have always done before. I thank my coach, Patrick Sang. I think with the discipline and hard work I’ve been putting in to work hard and run fast and defend my title in the 1500, it’s an amazing thing. It’s an amazing competition whereby we still keep pushing each other.”

Which record meant the most? “I think the most special one is the 1500, because I have been looking for it for a long time, since at least 2020.”

At August’s World Championships, she first tackled her specialty, going for an unprecedented third straight gold. In the semis, while armchair coaches would have had her conserve her strength, she didn’t shy away from a scorching pace. Once again, she kicked best, her 58.71 finish giving her a 3:55.14, the fastest non-final ever. Then the final two days later, she went out relatively slowly, and had company when she started sprinting with 500 left. Her last 400 took just 56.63.

Asked whether the gold medal or the World Record was more special, she didn’t hesitate: “The World Record, of course.”

She told the press that her major plan had been to defend the 1500 title, and that anything at 5000 would be an extra. “I’m going to run my race and just be myself and see what will be possible.”

The next day, she lined up for the 5000 heats. The 1500/5K double had never been accomplished at the Worlds, though both Mary Slaney (’83) and Tatyana Samolenko (’87) did 1500/3K doubles in the pre-5000 era. Kipyegon advanced with a 14:32.31 in her heat, then 3 days later took on the final. Staying in the pack until 600 left, she moved to the lead but didn’t kick until the bell. A 56.59 closer was faster than anything her competition had, as well as being her fastest last lap of the season. She crossed first in 14:53.88, 0.23 ahead of Sifan Hassan. It was her closest race of the year.

Her final track race of the campaign came at the Prefontaine Classic, where she says she wasn’t chasing the clock. “I didn’t worry about anything, I was just going and not looking back who is following me, just go to the tape and see what I was going to run.” She took the DL crown with her scintillating 3:50.72, the fourth-fastest time ever.

That wrapped up the racing, except for what was undoubtedly a lower-priority event in October, the first WA Championships in the road mile in Riga, Latvia. A 3rd-place finish there did nothing to dull her luster. After that, it was banquets and galas and an endless stream of awards, including Kenya’s highest civilian honor, the Elder Of The Order Of The Golden Heart.

“To have achieved what I achieved this year was magnificent. It was a dream come true from a long time ago,” she told the World Athletics Gala.

She is looking at repeating her winning double at the Paris Olympics, and then possibly saying goodbye to the shorter event with an eye on longer distances. Most important in her mind is her place in history. She told olympics.com, “It’s the legacy, that’s what I am working on now. I have the World Records, but I have to break barriers and leave the legacy over the distance.”

She wants to go faster yet: “If I stay healthy, I hope to go break under 3:49.” As for the mile, she has said, “Absolutely, one day one athlete will go under 4:00. I see it happening, either the next generation or our generation.”

A perfect season? Maybe there’s no such thing. An athlete like Kipyegon will never be satisfied with what she has done in the past. She will always be focused on the challenge ahead.

“I have been pushing myself to the limits and I will continue to push myself in the future.”