IN ASABA, NIGERIA
Kenya may have added gold and silver medals to their African collection on the final day of competition at the African athletics Championships, but it’s the story of Ethiopia’s Yehualeye Beletew that stood out.
Samuel Gathimba, bronze medallist at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, in April, defended the title he won two years ago in Durban by winning the 20-kilometre walk in one hour, 25 minutes and and 13 seconds.
Grace Wanjiru, a six-time Africa champion (1:35.5), finished second to Beletew (1:31.45) after the two had broken off early in the women’s 20km walk that circulated around the Stephen Keshi Stadium here.
Simon Wachira (1:27.57) was fourth with the silver and bronze going to South Africa’s Lebogang Shange (1:25.24) and Hassana Sebei of Tunisia (1:25.39).
The women’s bronze was panned by Chahimez Nasri of Tunisia (1:31.2) with all these times yet to be ratified as the championships’ legendary slow results system continued to stagger on the final day of the five-day championships that have attracted 52 nations.
Kenya’s second athlete in the women’s walk, Emily Ngii, failed to start as she was still admitted at the St Luke’s Hospital, Asaba, after an attack of malaria and ulcers with Kenyan team officials assuring she was stable.
“In fact, we are now heading to the hospital to seek her discharge as she has improved and is out of any danger,” Kenya’s assistant team manager Peter Angwenyi said.
Wanjiru dashed to the hospital immediately after her race to check on her team-mate with Gathimba saying he was wary of the threat by the South African silver medallist.
“I was determined to win the gold medal and I was only worried about the South African’s challenge,” said Gathimba, who finished third behind home athlete Dane Bird-Smith and Great Britain’s Tom Bosworth at the “Club” Games in Australia in April.
Now, Yehualeye’s story is stunning.
She left her family home at Debre Berhan, in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, at the age of 14 to focus on running, seeking to earn a living from an event that had brought untold riches to Ethiopian runners.
She couldn’t join the Debre Berhan Athletics Training Centre as she wasn’t among the pre-selected athletes on one hand, and also, she couldn’t afford it.
But she soldiered on, opting to wash clothes of the athletes in camp to eke out a living.
“I used to train from 6am to 10am and, while all the other athletes were resting after this morning training session, I would wash clothes for other people to get some cash that would keep me going,” the new Africa champion explained.
She initially competed in the middle distance races, but her coach at the Debre Berhan Athletics Training Centre, Belete Mekonnen, told her to focus on race walk.
After one year of training, Yehualeye won the national title in the 5,000 metres walk and qualified to represent Ethiopia at the Africa Junior Championships in 2015 where she finished on the podium, striking bronze in the 10,000m walk at the 2016 IAAF World Under-20 Championships in Poland.
This signalled her arrival on the world stage.
Leading unofficial 20km race walk results:
1. Samuel Gathimba (Kenya) 1:25.13
2. Lebogang Shange (South Africa) 1:25.24
3. Hassanine Sebei (Tunisia) 1:25.39
4. Simon Wachira (Kenya) 1:27.57
1. Yehualeye Beletew (Ethiopia) 1:31.46
2. Grace Wanjiru (Kenya) 1:35.5
3. Chahimez Nasri (Tunisia) 1:31.2
4. Olude Fadekemi (Nigeria) 1:41.16.