How Kenyan Javelin Thrower Julius Yego Mastered His Sport By Watching YouTube Videos
Julius Yego grew up in a country that prizes long distance running over all other events—so he started watching online videos at a cyber cafe to master the javelin.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The javelin community is becoming accustomed to champions from unusual backgrounds, if only because it has no choice. Traditionally the domain of Eastern Europeans—the great Czech Jan Zelezny won three Olympic titles between 1992 and 2000—two of the sport's most prominent recent champions come from nations with no javelin heritage whatsoever.
Trinidad and Tobago are known for sprinters and cricket, but not javelin throwing. Yet four years ago, teenager Keshorn Walcott shocked the world by claiming gold at London 2012 in a discipline he'd only picked up—by accident—three years earlier while larking about with friends at the back of a school playing field. But even Walcott's unlikely tale of how he discovered the sport pales in comparison to that of Kenyan Julius Yego, reigning world champion and gold medal favorite in Rio. Yego learned to throw a javelin entirely through watching online videos, a story which has earned him the tag of "The YouTube Man" in his homeland.
"You can't compare the feeling of throwing a javelin, getting it just right and seeing it fly," Yego says. "That's just perfection. It's why I tell people that javelin lives inside me, it's my lifeblood. I've always believed this ever since I first started. I think I have a natural feel for it."
Yego was first bit by the javelin bug when he was still at primary school, and took his first steps towards mastering the art of hurling a spear as far as possible, in the most rudimentary form. "I began by throwing sticks against boys from school," he laughs. "You have to remember that I come from a background where there were no roads, no cars, no electricity. Everyone ran barefoot to school. So we would cut and shape javelins from the branches of trees. I was competitive even at that age, I saw the other boys throwing their sticks as far as they could and I believed I could beat them. I would practice on my own at my family's farm while I was looking after the cows."
At a young age, Yego dreamt most vividly about becoming a successful soccer player, but when he reached secondary school, he realized that track and field might offer him the best opportunities of a sporting career. Growing up in Cheptonon, a rural village in the Tinderet area of Nandi County, the northern region of the legendary Great Rift Valley which has spawned so many great Kenyan runners, Yego felt the pressure to take up distance running. But he soon realised that he lacked the natural ability.
Now a stocky 5'9" and 185 pounds, Yego is built more like a sprinter than an endurance athlete—something which hit home unmistakably when he was 13. "I was lapped by two boys during a 10,000m race at school," he says. "I knew it wasn't for me."
In contrast, Yego's first encounter with a proper, metallic, competition standard javelin hinted at a precocious natural talent. Despite no formal training, he hurled it 47m at the age of just 14, increasing his personal best to 56m after one year. Soon he was competing at zonal and national levels and eyeing the national junior record of 67.43m, which had stood since 1987. Yego was determined to go further, but two major obstacles stood in his path.
The first was his father. Determined to ensure that his sports-mad son passed his exams and attend university, Wilfred Yego would chase him away from the athletics track and argue with his teachers that Julius should be spending more time studying. "My father was very strict," Yego smiles. "He hated the amount of time I was out doing sport. It would make him very angry and I couldn't tell him when I was going to competitions. It's understandable, though. My parents were from a very humble background. They had a maize and sugar farm, and like most African parents they believed that studying was the way their children could get a better life."
At just 17, Yego broke the national junior record with a throw of 71m, impressive for an athlete who did not have a coach and lacked much of the basic equipment for his event. With no conventional throwing spikes, Yego was throwing wearing normal running shoes.
But given the country's historic lack of success in field events, Kenya had no coaches who could help him go further. Nor were they interesting in supporting a javelin thrower. Their priority was distance running. "It was incredibly frustrating," Yego said. "Once I'd broken the national junior record, I thought my career was set. But instead it was the opposite. I considered giving up. There was nowhere in the country that I could train. I was completely alone, no other throwers to train alongside. No coach. For a while I was very low. Everyone is Kenya is a runner, running was all that mattered. But I was determined not to quit and eventually I had an idea."
In 2009, Yego went to the local cyber cafe and began to search for javelin videos on YouTube, specifically those of his heroes Andreas Thorkildsen, the Olympic champion in Athens and Beijing, and 2007 world champion Tero Pitkamaki.
"I studied their technique and what they did and tried to repeat it the following day in my training," he said. "It was a way of trying to make the best of my situation and working with what I had. I was looking for little technical points such as the elevation of the javelin on the point of throwing. Everything began to change in my training. Javelin requires technique, power, flexibility and speed and there were many of these aspects which I'd never looked at. Andreas was extremely powerful but he also had the flexibility of a gymnast. So I began working on things like that and it worked. My distances started to increase."
A year later Yego competed at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, his first international competition, but he still faced a major hurdle in trying to get Kenyan athletics to take his discipline seriously. In 2011, he nearly missed the All-African Games in Mozambique when officials refused to fund his travel expenses in favour of funding another runner. Desperate to compete, he eventually persuaded them to give him a chance.
Yego's persistence was rewarded. He struck gold in Mozambique, breaking the Kenyan national senior record in the process, and more importantly his burgeoning talent was noted by the IAAF, who invited him to train in Finland. It was there Yego met his first coach, Petteri Piironen, a man who would change his career.
"My technique wasn't great," Yego said. "YouTube can only take you so far. Petteri set me a training regime that I still use today."
In 2012, Yego became the Kenya's first javelin competitor at the Olympics, qualifying for London with a throw of 81.81m. No Kenyan had come close to such distances before. A 12th place finish in those Games was followed by fourth at the Moscow World Championships the following year, as Russia's Dmitri Tarabin denied him a medal late on with the help of a partisan home crowd.
But Yego's time was still to come. Last year, he produced the throw of his life, a monstrous personal best of 92.72m to win gold at the World Championships in Beijing. The feat spurred rumors the Qatar government were willing to offer him $9.5 million to switch nationalities—stories Yego swiftly denied.
Most importantly in his eyes, field events had finally been put on the map in Kenya. "We have great talent in these events too but they're too often marginalized in Kenya," he said. "I saw that as a challenge and it motivated me to succeed. I still have challenges today, I train without a coach most of the time, as it's too expensive for me to pay Petteri to come to Kenya for long periods. But my story has shown that it's possible to be largely self-taught and succeed. As the world changes, maybe more and more people will be inspired to follow similar paths."
Should he strike gold on Saturday night in Rio, the boy who once threw sticks on his father's farm will find that his story inspires many more.
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