NCAA champion Sam Chelanga finds new purpose as Army officer

Capt. Sam Chelanga, a marathon runner for the Army World Class Athlete Program, smiles while watching activities at the Phoenix Recruiting Battalion booth, Feb. 3, Mesa Marathon Expo, Sloan Park, Ariz. Chelanga is a former four-time NCAA champion and holds the NCAA record for the 10,000 meters. Chelanga won the half marathon in a time of 1:03.32.

As Capt. Samuel Chelanga crossed the finish line of the Mesa Half Marathon in first place, he stopped, looked around and took the sight in.

At 37 years of age Chelanga added another accomplishment to his already storied career as a long-distance athlete, one that saw him win multiple National Collegiate Athletic Association titles and set numerous records along the way.

Chelanga joined the U.S. Army in 2018 and commissioned as a logistics officer, before becoming part of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program in a bid to make the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

In preparation for this, Chelanga ran the Mesa Half Marathon, Feb. 4, winning in a time of 1:03.32, while also assisting the Phoenix Recruiting Battalion in their efforts to support the Army’s recruiting goals.

Chelanga’s journey began in his native Baringo County, Kenya, a country renowned for its long history of champion marathon runners.

“My family was very poor, but my life was good. My parents were good people and they taught me hard work and being loyal to your family,” Chelanga said. “They were very supportive when I decided to move to America.”

Chelanga grew up an avid runner and was constantly looking for ways to expand his burgeoning career. He soon received some advice from a Kenyan running legend.

Capt. Sam Chelanga (left), a marathon runner for the Army World Class Athlete Program, and Maj. Kelly Kaim, dietician, WCAP, pose at Sloan Park, home of the Chicago Cubs during spring training, Feb. 3.

“One of my friends Paul Tergat was an Olympic medalist and I asked him for help to attend a college,” Chelanga explained. “Paul said I should try and get a scholarship with the NCAA. He connected me with a coach in America and that’s how I got here.”

It was a massive decision for Chelanga, but one he accepted eagerly. He would accept a scholarship in 2006 with Liberty University, located in Virginia.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I landed here, but I knew wanted to stay. I talked to my father and he said there’s nothing for me back home in the village. He told me to go for it,” Chelanga explained.

“When I got my contract with Nike (in 2011), I was able to buy him a car. He said never in his life would he think his son would be able to do that for him. We always walked everywhere. I was able to send him money for food and he could eat whatever he wanted. This is a blessing from being here in the United States,” Chelanga continued.

During his time at Liberty University, Chelanga excelled, becoming an NCAA champion and record holder, establishing himself as one of the top endurance runners in the nation. After becoming a professional runner in 2011 he was on the brink of qualifying for the Olympics.

“I became a four-time NCAA champion. I was champion in the cross country twice, 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters. I still have the NCAA record for the 10k set back in 2010,” he said. “I was an alternate for the 10k at the 2016 Olympics. I retired from running after that, but I’ve decided to come back and try one more time to qualify for 2024.”

Chelanga said he felt he had done what he set out to achieve as a professional athlete when he made the choice to join the Army.

“I felt like I’d done everything I could … there were other things I still wanted to do so I decided to serve,” Chelanga added. “I looked back at where I came from and what I’d accomplished, and it was unbelievable to me. I talked to my wife and told her I wanted to join the military.”

Chelanga did just that and signed up to attend Officer Candidate School after being made aware of the opportunity by his recruiter.

“There were so many options when I decided to join the Army … I don’t think people realize how many opportunities there are,” he said. “My recruiter suggested OCS to me. I didn’t know what it was, but after he told me about it, I went for it. I went to Basic Training and OCS, graduated and became a logistics officer.”

The Olympics still loomed heavily for Chelanga, and eventually he decided to become a part of the WCAP located at Fort Carson, Colo., a program designed to allow elite Soldier athletes the chance to compete and train for the Olympics, while still maintaining regular Soldier duties.

“I’ve been in the program for a year and so far, it’s been great for me. It’s one of the best programs the Army has and I wish more people knew about it … the athletes there are great Soldiers,” Chelanga stated.

Working alongside Chelanga in the WACAP is Maj. Kelly Kaim, dietician, WCAP, who said Chelanga has adapted well to the program and is a natural fit.

“He’s a great leader in the program with all his experience, he’s committed to the Army and making a career of it,” Kaim said. “That’s a major decision on his part, as he’s chosen a military career over being a professional athlete and all the sponsorships that go with it.”

Chelanga’s necessary mindset is a key part of being in the program, Kaim said, with the sheer volume of training necessary to succeed.

“It’s similar to what a Soldier might experience but at a higher level. In the program you must be at the top of your sport, something Sam definitely is,” she said. “Being a marathon runner is a lot of training and Sam’s meeting the challenge.”

This challenge in Chelanga’s quest for the Olympics means a rigorous training regiment, something that would seem unrealistic to the average person, but almost routine for Chelanga.

“I’m a marathon runner so I’ll do two hard sessions during the week, and a long, long session on Sunday. This is alongside my regular Army duties,” Chelanga explained. “I average about 110-120 miles of running a week … I don’t feel my age, it’s just a mental state of mind.”

Chelanga now sees the Army as his long-term future and looks forward to this next chapter of his life.

“I had a great life as a professional athlete, but now I’m preparing to stay in the Army and mentor the future leaders behind me. That’s my main goal, however long it takes I don’t mind,” Chelanga said.

Chelanga is determined to assist Army recruiting in their efforts to attract Future Soldiers, something he deems an essential role of being in the WCAP.

“I would say as a multi-time NCAA champion and former professional athlete — there’s no other place that gives you as many opportunities as the U.S. Army,” Chelanga said. “Go for it. It’s the best decision you can make for yourself and your family. Every day you wake up you have a purpose — you’re serving the American people.”