Nyairera has unfinished business with rival Semenya

Wednesday March 18 2020
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Kenya's Margaret Nyairera Wambui (silver) poses on the podium after the athletics women's 800m final during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games at the Carrara Stadium on the Gold Coast on April 13, 2018. PHOTO | SAEED KHAN | AFP

By AYUMBA AYODI

Four years ago, a dark-skinned, lanky girl from Tetu High School, juggling volleyball and athletics, took the world by storm.

The 19-year-old Form Three student whacked the field to win the World Junior Championships 800 metres title in a personal best 2minutes, 00.49seconds.

However, that remains Margaret Nyairera’s only championship victory since then with the emergence of Olympic and World 800m champion Caster Semenya from South Africa and Burundian Francine Niyonsaba.

It has seen Nyairera haplessly play second fiddle to her two rivals, having only beaten Niyonsaba once but falling to Semenya in all the occasions they have raced. This has forced Nyairera to change her approach, focus and tact this time around with the hope of turning the tables on Semenya and Niyonsaba next year with her first major since her junior exploits four ago.

She has opted for early preparations this year, unlike in previous years. And Nayirera has just got the much-needed boost with the return of her coach Sam Maina, who helped identify and nurture her athletics talent back during her secondary school days.

Nyairera says she will not relent until she beats Semenya, who has been unstoppable in her dominance of world championship and Diamond League races across the world.

In a nutshell, Semenya has not lost any of her last nine 800m finals, including the Commonwealth Games, African Championships, Diamond League final and Continental Cup. Semenya added more accolades with victory in 1,500m at the Commonwealth Games and the African 400m title.

After claiming silver in 800m at the Commonwealth Games where Semenya triumphed, Nyairera failed to finish her final at the Africa Championships where Semenya and Niyonsaba prevailed.

“It has not been easy because everyone has consistently been training well with the purpose of winning,” says Nyairera. “Everyone is tough, which has made competition exciting.”

Nyairera has said even though she has beaten Niyonsaba before, Semenya has been a harder nut to crack. “Everyone is beatable. Semenya is beatable. Her day will come but let her enjoy the moment. My time is yet to come,” explains Nyairera noting that Kenya’s 2013 World 800m champion Eunice Sum beat her (Semenya) at the 2015 World Championships.

Semenya lost in the semi-finals at the 2015 Worlds where Sum claimed bronze while Maryna Arzamasava from Belarus won gold with silver going to Canadian Melissa Bishop.

Nyairera said her ambition is to keep working hard and make progress every year in her running career. “It has always been my dream to win a major and my target next year is to win the World title and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics,” intimates Nyairera, adding that she cannot even talk about breaking a World Record before winning one of the aforementioned titles or even her first Diamond League race.

Nyairera notes the past two years have been her toughest, having trained without a coach after she quit training with Kenya Defence Forces team to join Kenya Prisons. She wasn’t able to train with Maina, who was then with Kenya Defence Forces but took a break.

“Maina trained me for three months even after I graduated from Kenya Prisons College but he took a break from coaching. I was forced to train alone even as I kept referring to the programme he had given me,” says Nyairera, who competed at the 2017 London World Championships and this year’s Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast without a coach.

Semenya and Niyonsaba claimed gold and silver respectively, American Ajee Wilson took bronze with Nyairera finishing fourth in a race in which she suffered a leg injury.

It’s after the “Club Games” in April that Nyairera linked up with her current manager Juan Pedro Pineda De La Rosa, who secured her a coach. “The European coach, who doesn’t want his identity known, has been sending me programmes,” says Nyairera, who is glad to have also reunited with her coach Maina a month ago.

Maina said he had his first encounter with Nyairera back in 2012 at the National Primary School games where the likes of Timothy Kitum, Boniface Mweresa, Mike Mokamba, the late Nicholas Bett and Rose Rakamba were taking part.

“That time Nyairera was doing 200m and 400m at Endarasha Primary and actually won both races,” discloses Maina.

“I first devised a training programme for her to elevate her from 400m to 800m when she joined Tetu High School.”

Maina would later invite her to join the other athletes he was training in Nyeri where she was when she won the World Junior title until she completed her secondary school education in 2015.

“I provided her with training shoes and kit when she finished second behind Maximilla Imali during the national trials for the 2014 World Junior Championships. The rest is history,” says Maina adding that Nyairera is one of the easiest athletes he has handled largely due to her hard work, discipline and dedication.

Maina reveals that he is now building up Nyairera to a manageable weight of 64kg towards the start of the track season next year. “I can assure you she is going to be the queen of track and can break the world record. I have told her not to focus on Semenya but building herself,” said a confident Maina. “She will hit the top position next year, God-willing.”

Nyairera says after Maina spotted her at the nationals and helped guide her to a World Junior glory, she had no accuse not to join him when the coach invited her at Laikipia Air Base for training sessions.

“It was during the countdown to the 2016 Rio Olympics that Maina gave me a polished training programme that made me a proper 800m runner.

Nyairera went on to stun race favourite Sum at the Olympics trials in Eldoret, where she clocked a personal best 1:58.27 to win. Nyairera would improve her personal best to 1:56.89, settling for bronze after losing the battle to Semenya and Niyonsaba.

Before heading to Rio de Janeiro for 2016 Olympic Games, Nyairera had won the National 400m title to earn selection for the Africa Championships in South Africa where she won silver in 400m. “I was really motivated to make the 2015 World Championships while still at school and then 2016 Rio Olympics considering that there are those who have struggled for many years without making it to the two events yet I didn’t take long,” says Nyairera, who holds a personal best 1:56.87 from a third place finish in the 2017 Zurich Diamond League race behind Semenya and Niyonsaba. “I thank God for the talent.”

Athletics Kenya president Jackson Tuwei, who was then in charge of youth development, approached Nyairera to come in as a fourth athlete since Kenya had that option by virtue of having a World champion Eunice Sum.

“I was so excited to make a team but nervous too since I had not competed with senior athletes before. I had not competed in any AK Weekend meet,” notes Nyairera adding that what thrilled her was that she was in the safe hands of two world champions.

Nyairera said getting to team up and compete alongside 2007 World 800m champion Jepkosgei, who inspired her to join athletics was the best feeling ever. “I used to admire her. I went looking for newspapers that had her portraits and used them to cover my books,” says Nyairera. “Her disciplined and humble nature just inspired me. She ran and dominated for long.”

Nyairera who was born in 1995 in Endarasha, Nyeri County, and raised by a single mother Hannah Wambui in a family of three boys and a girl, notes that her secret to success is working hard, upholding discipline and avoiding bad influence.

Nyairera is perturbed by the doping menace in the country and warned both upcoming and established athletes of taking short cuts to fame.

“Shortcuts are always dangerous and performance enhancing drugs ruin someone’s career as well as health. They have deadly side effects and athletes should avoid them,” says Nyairera, adding that many have made it without using drugs. “There is life after athletics.”

Nyairera says that she was never discriminated against as a result of her masculine looks while in school and thereafter. “On the contrary, many girls and boys alike wanted to emulate my track exploits,” says Nyairera, adding that the bias female athletes with high testosterone levels are being subjected to is uncalled for.

“My take is that nobody chose to be born the way he/she is, for instance me, Semenya and Niyonsaba. Nobody choses his or her gender,” says Nyairera. “It’s quite unfair to target someone because of how she was born.”

Nyairera advises the International Association of Athletics Federation to focus on whether the athletes are running clean or not and not on how to lower testosterone levels of some athletes.

Wading into her personal life, Nyairera says that even though she is dating, she has no plans of marrying soon. “I will marry later but I am dating someone who will remain anonymous,” says Nyairera.

However, she fell short of disclosing her intimate relationship with a lady she is living with in Ngong and whom they have shared pictures and intimate conversations on social media.

Nyairera loves the tomboy life and acknowledges that she seduced and took a Nairobi businessman’s girlfriend. “Yes, I am living with her but I do not wish to speak more about it. She helps me out with house chores when I am training and takes care of my house when am outside the country,” says Nyairera. “The girl didn’t want him as he was forcing himself on her. There is nothing to hide.”

Nyairera, a fan of reggae and rhythm and blues (R&B) music, hastens to add that life is not all about athletics.

“Sometimes one needs to get their mind off the track and focus on their personal and social life too,” explains Nyairera. Nyairera wants to venture into business especially real estate as her safety net for when her athletics ends. She is also eyeing going into coaching and tap new talent so as to mentor more girls into athletics especially the 800m race.