Marie-Josee Ta Lou could have been a footballer.
Understandably so, as growing up in Bouafle, in the Marahoue Region of central Cote d’Ivoire, it was all about Didier Drogba and Salamon Kalou.
She was a Chelsea fan who dreamt of rubbing shoulders with two of Chelsea's all-time greats, and would religiously play football at school in Koumassi 05, a residential area on the outskirts of the capital Abidjan.
But her speed, as she chased the through-balls on the flanks in her early footballing career, unearthed her sprinting talent.
Something her first athletics coach, Florence Onolade, took note of, and quickly took the diminutive talent under her wings, eliminating the ball and focusing on the 100 metres straight in 2007, before handing her over to a more experienced trainer, Jeannot Kouame.
“Do you like football?” I ask Ta Lou as she prepares to catch her flight out of Mombasa after the Safaricom Sports Personality of the Year Awards last week where she was the chief celebrity guest.
“I’m a Manchester United fan and I like your countryman (United defender) Eric Bailly very much…” I engage her.
“Really?” she replies, her face suddenly brightening up. “I will tell him when I see him. He’s my friend!,” she adds.
“I’m a big fan of Chelsea, although these days I don’t follow football too much because I don’t have time.
“Because after training, I’m either sleeping or reading about athletics to see how I can improve. In my country, football is very popular and I actually started my sports career playing football.
“I loved Chelsea because of Drogba and Kalou. They were big stars.”
TOP RANKED WOMAN STAR
“But I would love to see more track and field athletes in Cote d’Ivoire becoming big celebrities like Drogba!”
Ta Lou, a 30-year-old daughter of a secretary mum, had an outstanding season in 2018, running four of the 10 fastest times of the season and ending the year as the top-ranked women’s 100m runner.
She started the year at the Doha Diamond league meeting on May 4, clocking a personal best 10.85 seconds.
She then ran 10.88 seconds in Eugene on May 26 and 10.89 in Monaco on July 20 before clocking another sub-11 seconds with a 10.90 at the Lausanne leg of the IAAF Diamond League series.
Ta Lou’s 2019 season will begin indoors, as the World Indoor Tour starts in a week’s time with six events lined up in Boston, USA (January 26), Karlsruhe, Germany (February 2), Torun, Poland (February 6), Madrid, Spain (February 8), Birmingham, England (February 16) and Dusseldorf, Germany (February 20).
“I’m now going back home to continue training for the indoor season and will have my first race in Torun.”
She isn’t really excited about running the 60 metres indoors, though.
“I prefer the 100 metres outdoors because 60 metres is too short. By the time it starts, it’s already finished!”
Unlike many of Africa’s top sprinters who prefer training in USA or Europe, Ta Lou has concentrates her training at home in Cote d’Ivoire, and is quite passionate about running in Africa.
“I have all I need here in Africa. We have good weather, good food and family is close and I love the environment here.”
Starting the season on a high, like she did in 2018, is something she isn’t too keen about this year, preferring a gradual build-up, especially with this year’s IAAF World Championships late in the season, in October.
“Last season I didn’t really want to start my season by opening with a PB, and it was really a surprise to me and my coach because it was the first race of the season and I wasn’t really ready, and I was confused.
“My coach (Anthony Koffi) was equally surprised. He told me ‘I know you can do better than last year (2017) but I didn’t expect you to start on a high like that!’
“He had expected my PB to come later in the season, towards the end.”
With the climax of the 2019 season, the IAAF World Championships, holding late-season in October in Doha, it will be a tough ask for athletes to maintain their competitive level from the season opening Doha Diamond League meeting in May to the World Championships in the Qatari capital.
“This season I’d like to start slowly, step by step. I don’t know yet which competitions I will run in, as I will have to choose these with my coach.
“Initially he didn’t want me to run the indoor series because that would make my season a bit long, but then we decided I can do a few races indoors just to improve on my start.”
Between the 100m and 200m, which is her favourite race?
“It depends on the season, really. Because like last year, I did lots of 200m races but I was in love with 100m.
“This year I will make sure I run better in the 200m, and hopefully we can get a good team from Cote d’Ivoire for the IAAF World Relays Championships in Yokohama.”
MIXED GENDER RELAY
In Yokohama, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has introduced a 4x400m mixed relay that should provide some added excitement as the championship moves out of traditional hosts Bahamas who organized the first three editions at the Thomas Robinson Stadium.
“The mixed gender race will definitely be more exciting,” she observes.
Ta Lou is wary of competition in the women’s sprints, with fellow African Blessing Okagbare-Ighoteguonor of Nigeria, Great Britain’s Dina Asher-Smith, Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson and USA’s Aleia Hobbs expected to challenge her from gun to tape.
“There are many new women sprinters coming up each year and they are all talented, so I will have to work hard.”
Ta Lou holds her coach Koffi — the man transformed her into a true professional at the Dakar High Performance Training Centre in 2013 — with great respect. “He knows what I need, he knows when I’m not happy and when I’m not OK – he’s like my daddy.”
Her thoughts about Kenya’s IAAF World Athlete of the Year Eliud Kipchoge?
“It was really a blessing for me to meet him at the Soya Awards. He’s a good guy and a good champion, and it was a pleasure to meet the marathon world record holder.
“Many people say I’m a champion, but I wanna be a big champion like him.”
What about her impressions of Kenya?
“It’s my second time in Kenya as I was here in 2010, but it’s my first time in Mombasa. Mombasa is a really beautiful city and I’ve really enjoyed my stay here.”
Ivorians have always produced top-notch sprinters including 31-year-old Murielle Ahoure, the current women’s world indoor 60 metres champion and double silver medalist over 100m and 200m at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow. Ta Lou is confident that the production line is steady.
“There are a few good women sprinters coming up in Cote d’Ivoire and some will be good like us in two or three years’ time.
“The only problem is that we don’t have enough good coaches in Africa. The good ones are very few which is a problem.”
At the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London, Ta Lou was twice edged out and settled for silver in the 100m and 200m, losing to American Tori Bowie and Dutchwoman Dafne Schippers. She hopes to graduate the silvers to gold when Doha hosts this year’s championships from September 28 to October 6.
Look out for the diminutive Ivorian!
Name: Marie-Josee Ta Lou
Date of birth: November 18, 1988
Place of birth: Bouafle (Cote d’Tvoire)
Coach: Anthony Koffi
Personal best times:
100m: 10.85 (Doha, May 4, 2018)
200m: 22.08 (London, August 11, 2017)
Long jump: 5.09 metres (Cape Coast, Ghana, July 8, 2016)