Story of solitary soldier

Olympic champ Maria Mutola overcame several hardships to become one of the best 800M exponents

Story of solitary soldier

For the better part of the last two decades, women’s 800M races at the highest level had one constant -- Maria de Lurdes Mutola. She might not have won each and every race she ran but the strongly-built Mozambican was a force to reckon with at the business end of most of the championship contests she took part in. So much so, Mutola is considered one of the greatest two-lap runners of all-time. 

Mutola’s career is a remarkable journey. Spotted by Mozambican poet Jose Craveirinha while playing football in Maputo, Mutola’s life changed when she went to the United States on an International Olympic Committee scholarship. Strange land, unknown language, no friends or relatives -- factors that would have snuffed out many a career acted as fuel for Mutola’s ambitions. 

Looking back, Mutola has reasons to be proud of, with an Olympic gold, three world titles and seven world indoor titles embellishing her numerous achievements. In this interview, ‘the Maputo Express’, who was in Bangalore as the event ambassador for the TCS World 10K run, talks about her life and times. Excerpts:

You’ve competed in six Olympic Games, one of the only four track and field athletes to have done so. It has been a long journey...

I think looking back, I have to say I was one of the luckiest athletes because being in six Olympic Games and winning so many World Championships, I had a long career. I ran for 20 years and I think the most important or lucky thing for me was to stay injury-free. I stayed injury-free for a long time and injuries can play a big role in athletes’ careers. For me I think my coach was very careful on how we trained and how we approached races. I sustained for a long time before injury problems came along. It came late so it enabled me to have a very good career in both indoor and outdoor conditions, which is not easy and I was successful in both.  

How was the experience of competing as a 15-year-old in the Seoul Olympics 1988?I have to say I didn’t know how I ended up in the Olympic Games in 1988. Coming from Mozambique, we didn’t have a lot of runners so my country took me any way even though I didn’t have the qualifying time. For me, it was a turning point as I learnt what the Games were about and I learnt that I had to work harder and grow a little bit to be able to run with the best in the world. 

What was the motivation to continue for such a long time?

The motivation was that I was the only one from my country. Because I was the first athlete from Mozambique to win medals in world championships and Olympics so people back home supported me and they wanted me to keep running and represent the country. I had good support back home to motivate me for so long. Also my coach, if it wasn’t for me going to the US, staying there and doing everything I did there... the success wouldn’t have been possible if I had lived in Mozambique. Going to US helped me.

Tell us about your role in coaching Caster Semenya...

I think Caster is very strong mentally and even before I met her, we would speak over the phone and she would always speak about positive things so when we spoke about me coaching her I thought it was a good idea because she had something to achieve and that was to win at the Olympics. At the London Olympics, the way the race went was a little difficult I think and she gave it her all in the last 100 metres. At that point I thought maybe it’s over and she wouldn’t win. But to come back with a silver was very impressive. It is very important for her to now to focus on the future and also the next Olympics.

How hard was it for Semenya to comeback after all those controversies?

I think it takes a lot. I have to be honest because it is not easy for her not to run for two years and then come back and try to progress and do well. Time-wise too she was slower. But when she started training harder knowing what she wanted to achieve, it became easy. At the moment it is about what she can do in the future. 

Would you have regretted had you not won an Olympic gold?

I think so. I would regret it for sure. I had won an Olympic medal before, but that was not gold so I always had something on my mind that if at all I was good as a sportsperson and good at what I do, I had to win at the Olympics. For me, when Sydney came, we made sure to move to Australia early. I remember we went to Australia 4-5 months before the Games. We went there, rented a house and trained there and ensured nothing went wrong. I also made sure I didn’t fall sick because in Atlanta (1996) I fell sick because of the AC. Outside it was very hot and when we came into the rooms the AC was automatic and temperature very low. In 2000, we made sure we were not in the same situation. My coach went and checked the Games Village in Sydney before moving in. Everything was right for me in Sydney. I was in shape and I knew who I was racing against and everything.

You had a long partnership with your coach Margo Jennings and now you are coaching Semenya. Could you explain the coach-athlete relationship?

I think for me it was very important because you have to trust your coach and understand what your coach tells you what you need to achieve. You have to believe in him. With me and my coach it was all about believing because she was like my mother. I lived with her, I did everything with her and trained with her every day. She knew exactly what I was doing, my eating habits. She was my mother really and coach as well.

To Semenya I try to be the same. She is in Pretoria and I’m in Johannesburg so I travel four times a week to train with her. I’m an athlete myself so I try and help her out in whatever way I can, especially in longer repetitions during training, which can get boring, so most of the time I jump in and run with her.

The 800M is a tactical race. How long did it take you to get a grip of it?

The first thing in the 800M is that you have to break two minutes before anything else. Once you have done that, you start making your tactics, for you know you can run with the best. You should know how fast you are going and what your strongest point is. To me, my strongest point was my finish and I had to work on my weaknesses and it was about the first lap. Sometimes the first lap takes care of itself because you will have people running 57 seconds, 58 seconds. But then, the second lap becomes a problem. You have to be awake and make sure that you win the last 100 metres. 

Jarmila Kratochilova’s 800M world record (1:53.28) was set almost 30 years ago. Do you think it is possible to break it?

That record is very difficult. In my younger days, I used to believe that I will get it. I did try to go faster but I didn’t get it and my best was 1:55.19. It’s going to be very difficult; it’s going to take someone special to break it. 1:53 is very, very fast. You have to run fast, even splits -- so it’s not easy.

There have been calls for such records to be expunged because of their alleged doping links...

I’m not sure because if someone doesn’t get caught how can you prove this speculation. It’s disappointing to find out later, like in the case of Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong -- all these people that you support with your heart, thinking they are clean and doing a good job, only to find a big scandal later. I’m glad it came out and that these people are no longer there and everything they did is erased. It’s a big shame for people like them and for the sport as well. But if somebody is not caught, it’s very difficult.

Who would you tip for the World Championship gold at Moscow this year?

The Russians; it’s in their home. You always have extra energy at home. There can be surprises but at the moment it looks like the Russians. They’re probably even training on the same track. Semenya is coming on OK at the moment; she has a bit of an ankle problem but she should be alright by the worlds.

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