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Best Friend Goals: Against the Odds, Halima Nakayi and Winnie Nanyondo Earn Trip to Rio

On a hot July afternoon, a diminutive woman is running in an 800m race, with everything she has. With seconds to go, she reaches out for her last ounce of energy, only to cross the line in second place, behind Winnie Nanyondo.

This is not just any race; this is the one she has been dreaming about for four years – the race to Rio. Nanyondo has already secured the ticket, having qualified a month earlier, to run in the 800m.

But a few minutes after catching her breath; a dejected Halima Nakayi erupts with joy.

After two failed attempts, the Kampala University student clocked 2:01.4 seconds in a highly competitive race. That is six microseconds better than the qualifying mark of 2:01.5 seconds.

Nakayi is going to the Olympics!

“I’m happy that I have made the games, it was not easy … I have tried, and God has answered my prayers,” the 23-year old says. “I had to have sleepless nights.”

Better yet, the time is far better than her personal best of 2:04:91 seconds reached at a race in Barcelona in 2012.

Clearly, something has clicked for this woman, who credits her Islamic faith.

“We trained hard, but the facilities weren’t  the best,” says the athlete, who had to endure training during the holy month of Ramadan. ”We used to organize our own transport, eats fruit like bananas, but God has answered our prayers.”

Nakayi also credits her competitor, Winnie Nanyondo, for pushing her to qualify. On this occasion, Nanyondo had to interrupt her training in the Netherlands to fly in to help her train.

“Pushing myself to beat Nanyondo has eventually improved my time,” she says.

Nanyondo is also pleased that her compatriot has made it.

“I had to fly in and give a hand to my sister, she says. “I had to come in give her pace.”

Starting Out as a Sprinter

To borrow the proverbial phrase, it has been a long road to Rio for Nakayi. She started out as a 400m runner in 2010 before she realized that it was a race too far for her. At the time, Nakayi was on Uganda’s team to the Summer Youth Olympics in Singapore. She only made it up to the opening rounds, before she was disqualified for jumping the gun ahead of her race. The team of six athletes returned to Uganda with just one bronze medal, thanks to Zakaria Kiprotich, who competed in the men’s 2,000m steeplechase.

Undaunted, she kept on training and qualified for the Commonwealth Youth Games at the Isle of Man, where she finally secured a gold medal in the women’s 400m race, completing the race in 56.13 seconds, well outside the IAAF world record of 47.60 seconds.

Subsequent runs went badly, as she finished in seventh place, in the qualifying rounds of the women’s 400m at the World Athletics Youth Championships in Lille, France.

A year later, a calf injury sidelined her from the track. She used the time to concentrate on her academics and was ultimately admitted to Kampala University, where she is a student in the Bachelor of Business Administration program.

Switching to 800m

As she recovered from injury, she was advised by peers to switch to the women’s 800m, rather than the more demanding 400m.

“I used to train with male runners like Ronald Musagala, who also helped me and Winnie Nanyondo,” she explains. “They kept on encouraging me that I will make it [to the Olympics].”

She first hit the mark in this race during the national university games, held at Ndejje in 2012, where she won the 800m race with a time of 2:04:96 seconds.

She would replicate the pace in a race in Spain, later that year, where she set her personal best. Despite her progress in the 800m, the sprinter doubled in 400m heats, occasionally winning there for her university.

Nakayi only decided to concentrate on the longer race this year, after realizing that qualification marks for the 800m were now far out of her reach. On June 25th , Nakayi missed the qualification mark at a race in South Africa, clocking her previous best time of 2:04:92 seconds.

This track is notable for a few milestones. For one, Nanyondo was absent and unable to set a high pace for Nakayi. Also among the spectators was the woman both Nakayi and Nanyondo need to beat in Rio – South Africa’s Caster Semenya.

Strategy for Rio

Semenya is in such fine form, that she easily cruised past all her challengers at the IAAF Diamond League meetings in Rome, Rabat and Monaco.

The 25-year old Semenya is in the best form of her life and has won so many races this year. She has been able to rake in the kind of money she needs to prepare for the Olympics, and is already touted as a favorite for gold in August.

By contrast, Nakayi and Nanyondo have some of the poorest training conditions to counter Semenya. They have to buy their amenities, using their meager funds. They also have to transport themselves to and from their homes to train in Namboole, using all sorts of means.

However, they are counting on their friendship to do something special for Uganda, this time, around.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“We are a team and we are training together and sharing strategies for the Olympics … God willing they will work out for the best,”[/perfectpullquote]

Nanyondo says.

It is unclear how their plan will work out. However, conventional wisdom has indicated that the plan may be for Nakayi to be Nanyondo’s pace setter in the 800m, in the interest of country pride. Nanyondo is the faster of the two Ugandan runners, with a personal best time of 1:58.63 seconds; first set in Monaco in 2014.

If the two girls can work this out, they could push Semenya to the brink of a new Olympic record, or win a medal for Uganda at best.

So it is not hard to see why both Nanyondo and Nakayi were excited about their qualification for Rio. One of them could spur the other to a medal – something they have both dreamed about for years.


Featured Photo Nanyondo (left) and Nakayi (right) and share a moment after securing Nakai’s Rio qualification (Photo Credit: John Batanudde)

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