Ten years after Peter Rono’s life was changed by winning Olympic Gold in 1988 for Kenya, he forever changed someone else’s life with an act of kindness that no one noticed at the time. Rono stopped his car on the side of the road and offered a young woman a ride. Janet Cherobon-Bawcom was on a 40 mile journey to her aunt’s house. First reluctant to accept the ride, she decided it was better than walking.
As the two made small-talk in the car, Rono wanted to know why Cherobon-Bawcom was not in school. While she wanted to attend a university, her family was unable to afford tuition. After Cherobon-Bawcom finished high-school, she remained at home. The oldest of eight siblings with a single-mom, she helped to take care of the others and tend to the family’s animals.
Cherobon-Bawcom remembers Rono saying, “You look fit. You can start training and I’ll help you out and maybe you can get a scholarship.”
When they arrived in Elderet, Cherobon-Bawcom continued on her way to her aunt’s house. Without intention of crossing paths again, she parted ways with Rono without even getting his name. He only introduced himself as an Olympian.
Six months later, Cherobon-Bawcom was still living the same life she had since high school, but the words of the anonymous Olympian weighed on her mind.
“For six months, I stayed home doing the same chores,” Cherobon-Bawcom said. “Finally I figured,’man there is this guy who gave me an opportunity and I didn’t even think about it.’
“But my mom was really strict, so if I told her that I was going away to the U.S., that would blow her mind. I was just trying to think of a way to convince my mom that I was going to start running. It was still hard for ladies in Kenya; if you went and trained, they laugh at you. They think ladies are supposed to be in the kitchen.”
Cherobon-Bawcom finally summoned the courage and walked the eight miles to the nearby village of Rono. Fate again intervened as Rono drove by and recognized the young woman. The two reconnected and Rono began coaching Cherobon-Bawcom for the next two years until she was able to get a scholarship to Harding University in Arkansas.
In her first 5 km race at Harding, Cherobon-Bawcom barely broke 20 minutes. By the time she graduated with her degree in health care management in 2005, she had eight NCAA All-American titles and three Division II national championship wins to her name.
After college, Cherobon-Bawcom and her husband Jay Bawcom moved a few times before they ended up in Rome, Georgia where Cherobon-Bawcom enrolled at Georgia Highlands to obtain her R.N. license. Cherobon-Bawcom continued to run, mostly for the social aspect of road races. But she continued to improve and pick up small awards from local races. It wasn’t a bad way to spend a weekend.
While juggling her studies, clinicals and training, Cherobon-Bawcom made local newspaper headlines around the southeast as she won one small road race after another. Eventually, Cherobon-Bawcom traveled a bit further and picked up wins at large marathons and half marathons everywhere east of the Mississippi.
With 140-plus road races under her belt, Cherobon-Bawcom had yet to run in a USA Championship while she was going through the process of becoming a U.S. citizen and being eligible to represent Team USA. On labor day of 2011, the wait was finally over.
Cherobon-Bawcom lined up next to the best runners in the country seeking the USA 20 km title and won her first national title. Four weeks later, she entered the USA 10 Mile Championships and picked up her second win. And Cherobon-Bawcom returned the week after that to maintain a perfect record by winning the USA 10 km Championships. With three wins in six weeks, Cherobon-Bawcom racked up enough points to claim the overall women’s title of the 2011 USA Running Circuit.
“I did not expect my year to be this way,” Cherobon-Bawcom said. “But I knew if I would go to those championships that I would probably be pretty competitive.
“ I went to the 20 km thinking ‘oh wow I’m going to meet all of these idols of mine like Blake Russell, Joan Benoit, Deena Kastor and Magdalena [Lewy-Boulet].’ All of these people I’ve only read about. At the beginning they didn’t know who I was or what I was doing there, but they have really embraced me.”
After her recent string of wins, people have changed their tune from, “Janet who?” to pointing to her as a contender for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon. While her marathon PR of 2:37 from the 2008 Snickers Albany Marathon doesn’t rank her that high among the other women, if you have watched her run lately, you know there is more in her tank.
But for Cherobon-Bawcom, she just wants to keep having fun.
“Running for me is a fun job,” Cherobon-Bawcom admits. “I always tell my husband, ‘when this stops being fun, I’ll stop too.’
“For the trials, I’m just going to treat it like any other race. I’m a very competitive person. I go to a race and I get frustrated when I feel that I didn’t give all I have. I can be 10th, 20th, 100th, but if I gave my best I am still excited. That’s how the trials are going to be. I’m just going to give it all I’ve got, stay healthy, try to give it the best shot and see what happens.”