Nicholas Bett, a Kenyan runner who won the 2015 world championship title in the 400-meter hurdles, was killed in an early-morning car crash Wednesday in the country’s famed high-altitude training region, police and his coach said. He was 28.
Bett had only just returned home this week from the African championships in Nigeria.
Nandi county police commander Patrick Wambani said Bett was killed in the crash on the road between Eldoret and Kapsabet, two of Kenya’s best-known distance-running training towns in the Rift Valley region. He was born and lived in the region.
Bett was driving alone, Wambani said.
Bett’s SUV hit bumps in a road and rolled, landing on its roof in a ditch, his coach, Vincent Mumo, told The Associated Press. Mumo said the accident happened at about 6 a.m.
“I’m out of words,” Mumo said. “We thank god for his life.”
Mumo said Bett’s twin brother, Aron Koech, who is also an athlete, was “beyond grief.”
Bett was also the father of 2-year-old twin boys.
His gold in the 400 hurdles at the 2015 world championships in Beijing was a breakthrough victory for Kenya, normally a powerhouse only in middle- and long-distance events.
The triumph from Lane 8 was a big surprise as he became the first Kenyan to win a major title in the event. It signalled that Kenya was ready to challenge in the shorter distances, too.
It was also a significant personal achievement for Bett, who was carrying a foot injury and ran through the pain. Since 2014, the injury had become a permanent part of his career and he learned to deal with it.
His victory in Beijing was especially popular in Kenya, where Bett was known as a humble athlete from a simple, rural background, like many of Kenya’s distance-running champions.
The difference was Bett wasn’t a natural. Instead, he had to persevere to be successful in a punishing event and one that isn’t popular in Kenya.
He may have been born in the Rift Valley, the heartland of Kenyan running, but he was initially a volleyball player before turning to track and field. He won the high jump at the national junior trials in 2010 and also tried the 110-meter hurdles before finally settling on the 400 hurdles.
Even then, it didn’t come easy. He wasn’t the best hurdler and recalled missing “about five hurdles” in the world championship semifinals before sneaking through to the final as one of the fastest losers.
He won the final in a Kenyan national record of 47.79 seconds.
“I was more shocked to run a time I never thought I would make in my life,” he said in an interview for his IAAF profile in 2016. “From there, my life changed. I have been able to do things for my family like building (a) house, buying a tractor.”
Julius Yego, who produced another major surprise at the same world championships to win the javelin gold for Kenya, wrote on Facebook on Wednesday: “Dark morning, horrifying news! Can’t believe it’s real but go rest with the angels Nicholas Bett!”
“I’m shocked beyond words!” Yego added. “My roommate in Beijing when we won gold together and it was just the other day we were in Nigeria.”
Bett also won bronze medals at the African championships in 2014 in the 400 hurdles and 4×400-meter relay.
“Bett earned the country great honours in his outstanding victories,” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta wrote on his official Twitter page. “My deepest sympathies and heartfelt condolences to his family, relatives and friends.”
The IAAF said it was “deeply saddened and shocked” by Bett’s death. Athletics Kenya said it sent condolences to Bett’s family and would help organize the funeral.
“We are really mourning the loss,” Athletics Kenya president Jackson Tuwei said. “He has done a lot for this country … he is still a young boy and we will really miss him.”
Bett’s twin brother was part of the Kenyan 4×400 team that won gold at last week’s African championships in Asaba, Nigeria.
Bett didn’t run on that team. He did make the final of the 400 hurdles at the championships but didn’t win a medal.
Imray reported from Somerset West, South Africa.
Mutwiri Mutuota And Gerald Imray, The Associated Press