Echoes of Jelimo as Nyairera revs for Olympic charge
With so many stars on parade at the June 30- July 1 Kenya Olympics Trials for Rio 2016 in Eldoret, it had to take something special to stand out from the constellation.
Margaret Wambui Nyairera seized the moment to grab a share of the spotlight when she uncorked a lung-busting 1:58.27 victory in the women 800m at the punishing altitude of Dr. Kipchoge Keino track as she confirmed her place in the Olympics team in the most emphatic fashion.
Her performance left the multitude that had packed the stadium in awe, dumbstruck even as she demolished local favourite and Moscow 2013 world champion, Eunice Sum who was towed across the line in 1:59.63 by the sheer force of Nyairera’s finishing power.
As she broke into a jig, supporters waved their disapproval at what they had witnessed with a few misguided catcalls but no one inside the stadium including Deputy President, William Ruto, at the self-styled ‘City of Champions’ could deny they had witnessed the start of something special.
Kenya has been here before. In 2007, a young powerfully build dark lady served notice when she won the silver medal in 400m at the Ouagadougou Africa Juniors. In February of 2008, she destroyed the revered Maputo Express Maria de Lourdes Mutola at the Africa Championships in Addis Ababa over 800m in 1:58.70.
At the Trials for the 2008 Beijing Olympics in Nairobi, she ran the finish out of Osaka 2007 women 800m World Champion and Sum’s training partner, Janeth Jepkosgei, the Eldoret Express, in a Kenyan soil record of 1:57.71. A month later, she became the first Kenyan woman to win track gold at the Olympics in a national record of 1:54.01. She was Pamela Jelimo who in the then women 800m tradition, was nicknamed Kapsabet Express.
Eight years later, Nyairera is echoing Jelimo’s barnstorming rise. She boasts of a similar build, a similar running style of power over tactics albeit with a tad bit slower times but there is no denying the 20 year-old is now Kenya’s best bet to deliver a second gold in the women’s two-lap race in Rio.
Before she scorched Kipchoge Keino’s tartan, Nyairera had just arrived from the Africa Championships in Durban where she won the silver medal over 400m in 52.24 behind Zambia’s Mupopo Kabange (51.56) as she worked on the speed that crushed the field at her chosen event at the Trials.
Nyairera is out to whet her podium appetite in Brazil having started the year by winning her first senior medal when she took bronze at the IAAF World Indoors in Portland (2:00.44) that followed her 2014 IAAF World Junior success in Oregon (2:00.49).
“This year I’m focusing on bagging a gold medal and hear the national anthem being sang in my honour. Running 400m in Durban was for speed work as part of my preparations for Olympics.
“So that when it comes to 800m when the rest decide that they will be crossing the line in 1:55.00, I shall still be comfortable,” the athlete who is as soft spoken as Jelimo asserted.
Like everyone else, Nyairera is aware the woman to beat in 800m is South Africa’s London 2012 Olympics silver medallist and 2009 World champion, Caster Semenya with Burundi’s World Indoor titleholder, Francine Niyonsaba installed as the next favourite.
“The 800m will have very tight competition and I don’t want to put myself under a lot of pressure. I shall be representing my country and I shall accept the outcome,” she added.
Nyairera is out to bury the scars of her forgettable World Championships debut in Beijing last year where she came unstuck in the first round after clocking 2:03.52 to finish seventh in Heat 6 of the competition.
“When I went to the World Championships, I lacked experience and it was my second international event and my first as a senior. I knew I was not at my best but wanted to compete with the seniors to gain experience.
“I did not perform well though it did not discourage me. I came back focused on endurance speed and finishing of the final 400m,” the runner who clocked the second fastest time on Kenyan soil after Jelimo at the Eldoret Trials underscored.
She will be travelling for the ninth diamond league meeting in Monaco on July 15 to gauge how her body is responding to training and perhaps get a taste of what is in store in Rio.
Just like Semenya and Niyonsaba, the good natured and fun loving Nyairera has been dogged by claims of possessing higher testosterone levels although she has not been subjected to the gender testing controversy and international scrutiny that overshadowed the South African’s victory in Berlin.
Her emphatic win in Eldoret and photo however, ignited huge online debate locally with cynics questioning her gender but having risen from village obscurity to the cusp of greatness, she remains unfazed.
“I’m not worried with how people view me or talk about me. I depend on my talent and their words and views cannot intimidate me at all. That’s why I strive to be the best in the 800m history,” she answered with a smile.
Nyairera -a firstborn in a family of four- was born and raised in Endarasha, Nyandarua County and trains in Kabiruini, Nyeri County. She was brought up by modest small scale farming parents in a back water village, far removed to the jet set lifestyle she is growing accustomed to as one of the sport’s brightest prospects.
Nyairera who loves music and dancing which explains her energetic jig when she made it for the national team, discovered her talent at Endarasha Primary School when she was made to run 400m by her games teacher a task she easily accomplished.
“It all started when I was in class seven through my primary school teacher. It actually started during the school inter-houses competition and I was heading one of the houses. I had not assigned myself any sport and when my PE teacher discovered that, he told me I would run 400m.
“I had no idea what that was or what it was all about. So I approached him and asked him to explain. He told me that 400m is just one lap in the field and if I was okay with it and I decided to try. I can say that my talent was discovered by my games teacher.”
She then joined Tetu High School where her talent blossomed and brought honour to the school when she was crowned the World Junior Champion in USA, with ensuring images of her uniformed classmate coming to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to receive her getting circulation in local media.
It was the first time for the lucky classmates to travel to the capital and they looked bewildered by the experience as they received their heroine.
“I kept on trying and worked hard and I picked it up from there. When I got to high school, I started running heptathlon and the 800m event is the last one. It was a must you participate in all seven events.
“That’s when my coaches encouraged me saying that I’m good and can be good in athletics and I finally started training for 800m,” she explained the formative steps of her career.
“I was also participating volleyball which was more of teamwork unlike athletics which is an individual effort .Later, I focused completely in athletics. While in form three I made to the junior team for USA and I brought back my first gold medal in the 800m event,” Nyairera recalled.
She met her coach Sammy Maina Macharia at the National Secondary School Championships through Kariuki Gekonyo, the veteran national junior team coach and rates Jepkosgei, the 2006 Commonwealth champion and Beijing 2008 silver medallist as her inspiration and mentor.
Maina has three athletes in the Rio 2016 team; Nyairera, 2012 women 3000m world indoor gold medallist, Helen Obiri and last year’s silver winner at the All Africa Games in men 400m Boniface Mweresa.
“When I first saw Nyairera competing against fellow students I was impressed and I decided to approach her through her secondary school coach. We both worked together to nature her talent and I would give him her training programme.
“She is one obedient athlete who works really hard to master her career. Every day is a new training experience for her and she enjoys. When she went for 400m in Durban I was not that comfortable with it. I wanted her to focus on the trials and Monaco Diamond League,” Maina told.
“She seemed to understand her body better and she wanted to really improve on her speed. She made me proud and got full confidence her when we go for the Rio. It’s her first time and I would not want to put pressure on her,” the coach added.
Born on September 15, 1995, Nyairera is shaping up to be the next force in women 800m running and her mission with teammates Sum and Winnie Chebet is to replicate the Kenyan 1-2 in Beijing after the country missed out on the medals in London 2012.
Then maybe, she has a choice of nicknames to pick from including and not limited to Mweiga Express or after the legendary bus of yore, Mweiga Success that used to ply the Mweiga-Nyeri-Nairobi route in the 1990s.
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