Fourteen-year-old Jeff Mungai quite literally sat his last paper in the 2019 KCPE examinations and within 48 hours hopped into a plane out of the country to represent Kenya in what would turn out to be his most eventful tournament yet.
Mungai was the youngest member of a four-man Kenyan team that was heading to the Democratic Republic of Congo to compete at the inaugural African Roller Games in Kinshasa.
But by the time team got to Kinshasa, they found themselves trying to play catch up after missing out on day one action due to a travel itinerary that saw them make a detour to Kampala, just to catch a cheaper flight that would ironically take them to Kinshasa via Nairobi.
Day one was disastrous. The team only bagged a silver medal courtesy of captain Teddy Andanje in the senior men’s 500m event.
But on day three, when the team launched its medal hunt proper, Mungai surprised himself and his teammates by winning one of the two gold medals that Team Kenya plundered on a richly rewarding day.
“It was the happiest moment of my skating career,” Mungai says of his victory in the junior men’s 10,000m race.
It was a big step up for the teenager who only managed a bronze medal his first international tournament last year in Egypt at the African Championships.
On that occasion, he admits, he suffered serious stage fright, which ultimately affected his performance.
“When I returned home my club coach sat me down and offered some very important lessons on how to compose myself during races and the mind games to employ in the course of the race,” he recalls.
“So this time round when I entered the race I was assured of victory.”
Mungai also won bronze medals in the junior men 10km points and elimination and junior men 15km elimination to finish with a tally of three medals.
But while it was immensely rewarding for the young Mungai, for team captain Andanje, who is already a ‘veteran’ at just 22 years, the biggest responsibility was how to motivate his younger and less experienced team mates in the face of a myriad of setbacks after the team landed in Kinshasa.
“We got there late and didn’t have enough time to rest. So trying to motivate ourselves was the first thing I had to deal with,” he says.
This wasn’t made any easier after the team only managed one silver medal on day one.
“Everyone in the team felt crashed. We felt that we couldn’t do it. Keep in mind all the other teams showed up with brand new suits, brand new wheels and new equipment. Yet, in our case we had travelled with equipment we had been using for probably the last one year.”
All the possible avenues the team could have used as a stronghold had seemingly been blocked. The team spirit was very low and self-belief had almost vanished in the Kenyan camp.
It was a very tough moment for the team captain. But the gallant team resolved to give it their best shot despite lacking so much.
“After the disappointment of the first day we had a sit down just to encourage ourselves. We decided that, moving forward, everything we were going to do would be as a team. And the strategy paid off handsomely,” says Andanje.
Andanje, who has been to several international tournaments across the world, led by example, bagging a total of six medals — two gold, three silver and one bronze.
As for 17-year old Tyrone Jowi, everything he touched in Kinshasa turned to gold, in every sense of the word.
Jowi won two gold medals in the 100m race and the 1-lap circuit.
“It felt good hearing the Kenyan national anthem being played on the account of my name. It’s not easy on the track. We came up against very tough opponents and so winning two gold medals was great,” he says.
This performance was also a significant improve for Jowi, who won a gold and bronze medal on his first international outing last year in Egypt.
For Ishmael Imani, who has been competing for only two years now, it was a steep learning curve, although the Kinshasa excursion counted for a memorable experience.
The Form Three student at Langalanga Secondary School in Nakuru won one silver medal in the 1km and a bronze in the 1 lap circuit in only his third major championship.
“The competition was very challenging, but I’m glad I was able to win a medal in a short distance race — the one lap circuit — which has always been tough for me,” he said.
Last year, in what was his first international outing at the Africa championships in Egypt, Imani won four bronze medals.
Before Kinshasa, Imani also competed at the World Roller Games which were held Barcelona in July this year. He managed an impressive ranking of 39th.
His steady progress in the sport has been termed as wonderful by Mercy Andanje who is a coach at New Horizon Skating Club.
In Kinshasa, the four-man Kenyan team finished third overall with a total of 13 medals — five gold, four silver and four bronze.
With the benefit of hindsight, team manager Naomi Wambui says it is the challenges that they faced before and during the competition that spurred on the team to a remarkable performance.
“The financial challenges we had is what boosted this team. The sacrifices we made to get to Kinshasa had to count for something. That push alone made us resolve that we cannot go through all that for nothing, it has to count. So yes, the challenges were the driving force for these guys,” she told Nation Sport in an exclusive interview.
She also attributes the team’s good performance to sheer hard work and a great level of commitment from the skaters.
“We have a very talented team. But the one thing that all of them have done is being consistent in training. They’ve all dedicated themselves to improving their skills. And this is despite not having proper training facilities and not having a full-time coach for the national team,” Wambui says.
There is no doubt in her mind that had Kenya fielded its entire team at the championships, then they would have given Benin and hosts DR Congo, the teams that finished ahead of them, a serious run for their money.
“Kenya is actually a skating powerhouse in the continent. But this time round we went in as the underdogs, because, compared to the other teams, we had a very lean team. It was an excellent effort for us to have gone in with just four athletes and win as many medals,” she says.
So what next for these young skaters who are already pushing the boundaries in popularising the sport in Kenya?
For Jowi, a double gold medallist in Kinshasa, next year’s World Roller Games in Colombia can’t come soon enough. He is already thinking ahead and preparing himself to compete at the biggest stage in the sport.
“I’m really looking forward to the World Roller Games next year in Colombia. I want to gauge myself against the best skaters in the world. My dream is to break the world record in the 100m race and become a world class skater,” he says.
The soft-spoken Ishmael says his aim is to pursue skating for a worthy course.
“In school, other students look up to me because I’m able to balance skating and academics. I want to reach the world level and attain world class rankings,” he says.
Mungai, too, says his dream is to become the best skater in the world.
“Skating is the food of my soul. I can’t go a day without skating. My ambition is to become the best skater in the world,” he says with a smile.
But is it their team captain, Andanje, for all his experience and level of maturity, whose words are most profound.
“I look at skating from a different dimension. Personally, skating is part of my life. There is no sport that I love more than skating. Every day in training, every time that I go to a competition, I always want to see myself as being the face of skating in Kenya, Africa and the whole world,” he says.
“It’s like when you think about marathon you think about Eliud Kipchoge, and when you think about sprinting, the one person who comes to mind is Usain Bolt. I want to be that person that comes to mind when you think about skating,” Andanje says with a great deal of conviction.
Andanje also wants to see Kenyan skaters earning money and living off their earnings as professional skaters.
“Kenyan skaters have already put in a great deal of effort, but the returns are not as much. It’s not a good thing for me to be the only beneficiary of scholarship through skating. I want to see others benefiting as well,” says the second year Environmental Science student at Egerton University.
And with the 2020 Olympic Games just around the corner, Wambui is of the view that it is high time Kenya considered fielding athletes in sporting disciplines which are generally not considered to be our speciality.
“While Kenya has traditionally been an athletics powerhouse, it’s important to note that other countries have been gaining ground in what have been our races. Julius Yego sat down and trained himself how to throw the javelin through YouTube and no one saw it coming,” she says.
“These skaters, too, train themselves through YouTube. I would not wish to see any of them going the route of changing nationalities just for the financial rewards they stand to gain in so doing,” she adds.
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