Sabina Chebichi was a member of the Elgeyo ethnic group from Kenya’s western highlands. She was born in Trans Nzoia, the second oldest of nine children, and grew up in a mud hut, tending to the family’s cattle and doing other household chores. Chebichi would come from humble beginnings to achieve fame in the athletics world.
She was distinguished among her fellow school runners in the early 1970s. During a meet held by the Kenya Amateur Athletics Association in Kericho in May 1973, the 14-year-old from Mlimani Primary School near Kitali stunned athletic pundits. Chebichi won her race barefoot and in a bright green petticoat at that important Brooke Bond-sponsored meet in Kericho because she did not have the basic sporting equipment — running pants and shoes — that many of her schoolmates did.
Her results were unaffected by her lack of adequate athletics gear. In actuality, she clocked 2 minutes 16.8 seconds in the women’s 800 meters and 4 minutes 40 seconds in the 1500 meters. According to sources, these were times that were already within quantifiable distance of world records at the time.
Feisal Sherman, the Secretary of Kenya’s Amateur Athletic Association (now Athletics Kenya), sent Chebichi a running kit and proper shoes after her green petticoat earned her the nickname “petticoat princess.” Kenyan journalists and sportswriters couldn’t get enough of Chebichi, Kenya’s newest and youngest running sensation at the time.
Chebichi continued to win hearts and gain media attention as the 1973 season progressed, breaking records. She achieved some of the fastest speeds in Africa for 800 meters and 1,500 meters that year. She set a new record for the island of Sardinia in the 800 meters race, according to Reuters, while on an Italian trip.
Her most defining moment came in 1974, when she won bronze in the 800 meters at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand. This made her the first Kenyan woman to win a Commonwealth Games medal.
Many anticipated that the amazing Kenyan runner may achieve even more and even compete in the Olympics after making history on the international running scene. “If Sabina can continue to train hard, there is no reason why she cannot win a medal in the Olympic Games and become the first-ever African woman to accomplish it,” one report stated.
Chebichi was selected to compete in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada, but Kenya, along with other African countries, boycotted the games in protest of New Zealand’s participation, which had sporting ties to apartheid South Africa.
Chebichi fell pregnant after making headlines as Kenya’s new athletics star, putting an end to her career. According to an article on the History of Women’s Sport in Africa, several female athletes who went on to become renowned international runners concurred that early pregnancy hindered their sporting ambitions. “Girls who start rising in athletics and are subsequently interrupted by pregnancy never seem to recover,” former Olympian Ruth Waithera said in an interview, according to the 2015 article.
Chebichi’s perseverance and stamina continue to inspire people, despite the fact that she was unable to excel in sports as many would have desired.