Olympic 800m race champion Jelimo promises comeback

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Pamela Jelimo (Front, L) of Kenya competes during the women's 800m final at the National Stadium, also known as the Bird's Nest, during Beijing 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, Aug. 18, 2008. Pamela Jelimo won the gold.

by John Kwoba

NAIROBI, Nov. 6 -- After two years of numerous false starts, Olympic 800m women champion Pamela Jelimo, has nothing to look forward to but feel helpless, just like a withered flower.

At 18, she blossomed to reign in the two-lap race too soon and paid the penalty for it, the ultimate nightmare of any sportsman; succumb to injuries.

Jelimo has seen cruel injuries trim her wings as she has failed to display the same power, speed and endurance that lend a hand to her cruise to the top of the world and clinch the lucrative IAAF Golden League jackpot and the Olympic gold medal in 2008.

Many have since written her off. But they are not to blame. For an athlete who was primed to represent the future of Kenya in the two-lap race, there can be no explanation to warrant her failure to dominate in the competition at just 21 years.

But off-track problems - a career threatening knee injury, for example - and a series of other niggling opportunistic injuries and the expectation of unrelenting public have taken the wind out of Jelimo’s sails.

Janeth Jepkosgei victory in Osaka World Championships in July 2007 was described as the best for Kenya. However, it is the emergence of Jelimo that has caught the world’s imagination.

Seemingly out of the blues, Jelimo decimated the field that included former world champion Maria Mutola of Mozambique, Jepkosgei, Kenia Sinclair of Jamaica to be crowned the Olympic Champion in Beijing Olympic Games.

She later went on a 14-race spree from Nairobi, to Monaco, to Rome winning everything on offer as she cruised to clinch the now defunct IAAF Golden League in Brussels with 1 million US dollars to savour.

On return home, she was given heroic welcome and a street in Kapsabet town was named after her. But then, she unwind during the recess, injuries crept in and she was a no-starter as the 2009 season started.

This was the start of a long frustrating spell for Jelimo on the sidelines. She became a regular in the Kenya Police treatment court.

“Nobody wanted to listen to my side of story. I had a left knee injury, a sour ankle on my right leg and a hamstring to worry about. I put in so much effort and time in my training as I struggled to regain my fitness,” said Jelimo.

“I fought alone. In my quest for the jackpot, I ended up wearing down my body. I had run basically each and every race in 2008. I ran out of steam and the body was constantly reminding me to cut down. I was finished.”

Last year, Jelimo made several false starts as she battled to make a comeback and win anything to get her career a much needed leap.

But the first aspect to show Jelimo that she was not ready was evident. She was trounced by Janeth Jepkosgei, the world and Olympic silver medallist, at Nyayo National Stadium during the trials for the World Championship.

“I heard the fans chant my name. I wanted to win, but credit to Jepkosgei, she beat me clean. I also realized that the younger athletes – Cherono Koech and Winnie Chebet – were very close,” said Jelimo.

At the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Jelimo pulled out after 200 metres of the semi final race with a knee injury and travelled to Belgium for treatment.

“After 100 metres I felt a sharp pain when I tried to push and so I decided to pull out rather than make the injury worse,” said Jelimo after running the semi-finals in Berlin. “It was painful but what could you do?”

This year in Shanghai, Jelimo clocked 2:01.52. It was Jelimo’s first race in eight months at the international level since she pulled out of Berlin World Championship.

Injuries are part and parcel of sports and Jelimo looked at her career hopeful that she will be able to run faster again.

She has since recovered and now is eying the start of the 2010-2011 season with determination that she will be at peak form to win the World Championship in Daegu, South Korea in August.

But she realised the huge task that awaits her. But she is resilient; she will be at the top of the world sooner than most people think.

Her rise was personal effort and she knows that self belief holds the key to her future. Jelimo is ready to take off the blocks.

“I never doubted myself making a comeback. I am now fine and ready to go. It was a hard stage and now I have passed it. Now I will focus on building my career and getting my fitness back. I start with the cross country where I hope to run one or two races to see how I perform in endurance,” she noted.

Jelimo said that she draws her inspiration to the fact that some other athletes have suffered such injuries and were forced to halt their career.

“Look at Sanya Richards, she was out for long but she is promising in her comeback. Usain Bolt is also injured and Kenenisa Bekele could not run in Nairobi or in the Diamond League because of injury. I am not a lone ranger,” she said.

But the hopeless aspect of sitting out and watch as her colleagues raced has left Jelimo saddened. Even in her injury period, she never laid back on her laurels. She wanted to come back and do what inspires her most, run for Kenya.

“I have never thought twice about representing this great country. It will never be enough to listen to the tune of the National anthem being recited in honour of my performance. I wanted the world title in Berlin,” she said.

“I was always told by my doctors to relax and let the injury heal with time. But I couldn’t just sit and see as my team mates trained. I did gym works, trained lightly and watched on my diet. My husband has been on great help. Besides living me, he has always been supportive in my darkest hours. He has always encouraged me,” she said.

For those who might have turned Jelimo’s page over, she has just one message; “I will be back, whoever is at the top must make way for I will not stop until I get to up there.”

“I will be a world champion again. There is no doubt about that and you better take it seriously. In Daegu, second spot will be a disappointing finish for me. I have never felt strong and fresh like now. I am ready to go and hopefully without any relapses, I will be at my peak form in March,” she said.

But she has a soft spot for South African Caster Semenya, the current world champion.

“It is not her wish to be subjected to such ridicule. But I believe she did it clean and will try hard to retain her title,” said Jelimo.

Retirement never crossed her mind though. At 21, Jelimo said she still has over 15 years of active competition.

“Why would I think of quitting? I will fight back through the ladder and claim the world title. Maybe I will retire at 40 years, who knows. I never even thought of starting a family when I was out injured, but I can get a baby when I want,” she added.

For those who still doubt, her focus, Jelimo still has her 1 million dollars jackpot is safely stuck in safe account.

“Maybe I will start an academy, not just for athletics, but for all sports here in my village. I want to give back to this community which has sacrificed much for me. Maybe that way I will retire a happy athlete. But until then, I want to win and get that Kenyan national anthem recited in my honour,” she said.