The untold story of Kenya’s Athletics coaching legend Jimmy “Simba” Beauttah

Jimmy Beauttah - Coach Simba
For those who know him having worked with him or having been trained by him, he is simply Coach Simba.

Beyond the athletic circles, many are unfamiliar with the septuagenarian whose Midas touch as a High-Performance coach moulded the talents of Asbel Kiprop, Moses Kiptanui and Daniel Komen and many other Kenyan athletic legends. For over 30 years, he has produced gold medal winners in world championships, world cross country, world half marathon, Commonwealth Games and Olympic games. This is the story of Jimmy Beauttah aka Coach Simba.

Last month, I sat with him on a deserted part of the Nyayo National Stadium using some makeshift seats. His demeanour was not adding up with everything I had read about him. I had questions. Lots of them. In fact,  I had prepared a list of them to guide our session as I sought to find out just who this revered Coach Simba was.

I had heard so much about him in the recreational running circles. As I quickly flipped my laptop open eager to get us started, I kept wondering, was he really a Jazz musician and a boxer who used to play in nightclubs? How did he step out of the limelight to behind-the-scenes coaching athletic champions? How is it that he is still training all these years later? These questions kept me starry-eyed as I fumbled to get my recorder working. He simply smiled and observed me like the way a parent would a child who’s too eager to show something cool they just learnt.

The stadium was a hive of activities. The tracks swarmed with young promising athletes who had come to take their stab at the trials for a chance to be in the national team.  This meet had been planned a week earlier during Coach Simba’s weekly training session at the same stadium. He is now part of the Run Beyond team where he helps recreational runners get the basics right in form, pose, technique, nutrition and discipline every Thursday morning.

I had mentioned after our training session that I was keen to write a story about him. The following day, I was back at the stadium to watch the trials and ask all the questions I had in mind about this legend.

As I switched my recorder, I couldn’t help thinking to myself,  where to start? That’s when it hit me,  why not go back to the very beginning where it all started?

Learning martial arts, playing Jazz musician to Decorated Kenyan Navy Warrant Officer Two
Born 59 years ago, Coach Simba as he prefers to be referred to, grew up in Mombasa in Coastal Kenya. As a young boy, his interest in fitness and martial arts was sparked by his older brother who taught him boxing and later on, Shotokan- a style of karate developed from various martial arts. Soon after, he together with some friends built their own ‘home gym’ using some homemade weights, he was just 10 years old. 

In high school, he learnt to play various percussion instruments including the Congo drums and flute. These, together with his athletic body gave him his first paying gig after high school. He joined a music band that performed in popular nightclubs in the coastal region for tourists. 

It was while he was working as a dance musician in 1974 that the Kenyan Navy discovered and recruited him as a Navy musician in The Pirates Bank Kenya Navy. Though he was in the band, it was his fitness discipline as a boxer and martial artist that caught the eye of the physical training sector. They demanded that he join them as a physical fitness instructor and sent him to the Armed forces training base in Lanet, Nakuru where he learnt up to diploma level in coaching, physical training as well sports massage.

“One time while at the physical training sector conditioning boxers, footballers, I was asked to accompany the athletics team. He tells me. “ I stayed with them for some time. When they went to competitions, they performed so well, I was permanently put to work with them.

It was while he was in the Navy that he realized my true calling.

“I was seeing a  natural progression in my love of sports. I have the ability to fully dedicate myself to working with an athlete. I would rather go hungry and help them grow. I attribute this to God being on my side,he tells me.

He retired from the Navy in 1995 with the rank of Warrant officer 2, the highest rank in the Navy. He had served for 21 years. 

Joining Kim McDonald International Sports Management After retirement, he was picked by Kim McDonald, an International sports management camp whose base was in Nyahururu. The camp was set up by the late Kim McDonald, a British agent who in the 70s spotted the potential for Kenyan athletic development during trips to East Africa.

Coach Simba had known and worked with the late Kim on a part-time basis while in the Navy where, during the season, he’d accompany athletes to the camp for high-performance training.

Unlike the Navy, I was now training Kenyan athletes as well as international groups for the normal grand Prix, championship and other international meets,he tells me 

Before joining, the camp, they had only had 1 record.  Within a year of his joining, the camp, we had 2 world records.He smiles

That year became the first for Kenyans to run the 1000 meters under 13mins. It was also the same year when Moses Kiptanui and Daniel Komen won the junior and senior world records.  Respectively. After that, as he exclaimed, it was all good performances, all of them sheer dedication.

This, coming from a man who migrated his wife and three young children from the warmth of Mombasa to the freezing altitudes of Nyahururu is a true embodiment of one having blind faith and heeding their true calling.

“I am one person who takes everything that I do both feet in. That then becomes my stepping stone and a point of learning. Learning does not take a year or two, sometimes, it takes a decade.”

After coaching at the camp for 13 years, he left the management in 2008 following the death of the founder and director. 

His calling was beckoning him towards the city of champions, Eldoret.

Joining IAAF Center & Working with the Mzee Keino  
As I glance at my recorder to confirm that it was still running, I note that we have been speaking for close to an hour and I was yet to hear about his experience at the  IAAF High-Performance Training Center (HPTC) which has since been renamed the KipKeino HPTC Eldoret.  For a man whose accomplishments can fill a book, we had just warmed up.

“Shortly after leaving the Nyahururu camp, I  had the opportunity of working at the IAAF HPTC centre, a place where the national federations recommended their own athletes to come and for the training camp through the International Association of Athletics Foundation. It was my first time working with an all non-Kenyan elite athletics team throughout”

I thought  the Nyahururu camp did have international athletes, I ask

“Yes it did, however, there were still more Kenyans than international ones, also, most were still in their early careers. At the KipKeina centre, they were all elite pros from all over the world”

How was it like working with the legendary Kipchoge Keino, I ask?

“Mzee Keino is a great man who has done so much for athletics. During the time I joined, he was also the president of the National Olympic Committee (NOC). It was a great experience working with him and having athletes from all over the world join” he tells me.

Some particularly fond memories he has is of a young man from Mali who joined the centre. He had tried to run the 800 metres and had a tie of 1.51 before then. He recalls

“When he left he had been running 1.46. Went up to semi-finals in the world championship in middle distance running from Mali”.

Another athlete he worked with very closely and whose running went through tremendous improvement from was one Sri-lanka who joined to the centre with 3.45-3.46 in the 1500 metres distance,

“When he was leaving, he was running at 3.39 national record and gold medal from Asian championship,”
When I ask him how he was able to achieve all this. Dedication, he quips.

An authority in Kenyan Athletics Coaching
Coaching high-performance athletes does come with its perks. It made the coach a globetrotter, a much sought after keynote speaker and a thought leader on Kenyan athletics.

He was among the keynote speakers at the 2011 International Festival of Athletics CoachingHe has been interviewed byEurosport>Runners World among other international sports media. His story has been told in the book Run to Win: The Training Secrets of the Kenyan Runners by By Jürg Wirz.

He left the IAAF training centre in 2008. Soon after, he met George Parks through an introduction by Hilda Kigen. George was planning to open a sports store and was looking for a professional coach to help recreational athletes get the basics right. Coach Simba and Hilda had worked together at the IAAF centre where she had served as the Administration manager. They are both now are part of the Run Beyond team.

As we wrap up, out of curiosity, I askDo you still run?

Turns out, he still does. In fact, he also still practices Shotokan, a discipline which, 70 years later, he tells me, keeps his body and mind sharp. 

“Self defence also comes in handy in this Nairobi,” he tells me and we both laugh.
Jimmy Beauttah will be turning 70 later this year. He does not see himself retiring the same way most men his age have.  This, he tells me, is his retirement.

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