Golden girl on top of the world

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MASERU — She is on top of the sporting world.

Two weeks ago she became only the second Lesotho national to win a medal at an international athletics event.

Her name — is Selloane Tšoaeli.

Tšoaeli came back home with two medals — a gold and bronze medal — following her heroics at the African Senior Championships held in Nairobi, Kenya.

It is for this reason that the 33-year-old athlete has become hot property on Lesotho’s sporting scene.

Her fortunes have quickly changed from being an unknown to a national icon.

In an exclusive interview with the Lesotho Times this week, Tšoaeli begins by paying tribute to those who have helped shape her career namely Maseru Toyota, Lehakoe Club and Gym and one Mr Majit.

While she might have reached the apex of her sporting achievements, her feet remain firmly on the ground.

Even though she is as calm as the sea there is no understating her achievements in Kenya where she beat a quality high jump field while also finishing third in the gruelling heptathlon event.

“It was tough,” Tšoaeli says.

“It was a tight schedule. Some events I did without stretching. I had to do the shot put and 200 metres while I was still doing the high jump event. The following day I had to run 800 metres.”

She said she felt that her body was tired but told herself “that if I have to die then I will”.

Tšoaeli’s medal haul put Lesotho in 14th place out of the 54 countries that were participating at the games.

Her victory also saw Lesotho’s national anthem being played only for the second time at a major sporting event.

It was the crowning moment in what has been a very short career.

She says she chose long jump over more orthodox sports like netball and soccer in school because “you are on your own and you fail own your own”.

Tšoaeli has had to stand strong over the years.

In 2005, Tšoaeli suffered a serious knee tendon injury that could have easily ended her career.

For the whole of 2005 and 2006 she could not compete.

Tšoaeli says she is fortunate she got the correct diagnosis which has enabled her to continue her career.

“I was lucky that there were people from America who were here and they advised me and said I should sit out for a year at least. So I sat down for that time,” she says.

“What I was happy about was that I found the correct diagnosis. I remember one time I had a neck injury at netball and the doctor said I should rest for a week but it wasn’t long enough and it became worse. I’m happy that I was able to heal properly,” she says.

She has however not had it easy over the years though.

In 1999, Tšoaeli put up a disappointing show at the All Africa Games in South Africa.

In 2002, at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, United Kingdom, Tšoaeli came 15th out of 18 athletes who competed in the long jump.

From there her career stagnated because of injury.

This was a far cry from her dominant school days at St Benedet, Maseru Day High School and Lerotholi Polytechnic.

It meant tough decisions had to be made and some serious hard work had to be done on her road to recovery.

Tšoaeli says the person who made a difference in her career is Cuban Reynaldo Salas who arrived as Lesotho’s national coach in 2007.

The changes he brought were instant and unexpected.

Tšoaeli began doing the heptathlon, the monstrous seven-event discipline that includes high jump, long jump, 100 metres hurdles, 200 metres, 800 metres, shot put and javelin.

“Luckily the time when I came back (from injury) was when Salas arrived. When he arrived he started me off like a beginner,” Tšoaeli says.

“He encouraged me to do heptathlon, before that I only had only tried triple jump, high jump, long jump.”

“I never thought in my life that I would be a hurdles runner. It was something that I saw people do, and I thought it would be nice to do it, but I thought it was too difficult,” Tšoaeli adds.

Salas’ changes have brought the best out of Tšoaeli.

All her personal best efforts have come since 2007, while all except for her 100 metres and heptathlon personal bests have come in this calendar year.

“To do what I do you have to love it. It’s a lot of work, I won’t lie,” Tšoaeli says in reference to her training schedule which includes having two sessions per day.

It’s made even difficult by the lack of facilities in Lesotho. Shot put, for example, uses a circular launch area especially made for the event.

“At the moment it’s hard. Setsoto is the only stadium we have, but I can’t do shot put there. To do javelin you also need the right facilities,” Tšoaeli, who had to use Lesotho High School to prepare for the African Championships, says.

“Luckily we got an opportunity to go Cuba. There I was able to really polish up my technique. When you get the technique of javelin right, you get it right up there.

“Believe me, if we had those (good) conditions it would different. I have seen many talented kids at the (Setsoto) stadium. It’s about how we help them,” Tšoaeli says.

Unfortunately there is also little hope for Lesotho athletes to compete at international events — the IAAF Grand Prix series or IAAF Diamond League for example — because of a lack of sponsorship.

Nonetheless Tšoaeli has unsurprisingly become impervious to disappointment.

She insists her focus is on the IAAF Continental Cup next month in Split, Croatia, where she will be the first Mosotho to take part in the competition since it began in 1977.

The Continental Cup is for the finest athletes from the four continents of the world and Tšoaeli will be part of Africa’s team against the Americas, Australasia (Asia and Oceania) and Europe.

In what are sure to be a hectic 15 months Tšoaeli also has the Commonwealth Games in October, the All Africa Games next July and the 2011 IAAF World Championships in August to think about.

Tšoaeli says she would like Salas, whose contract expires next March, to stay on in the job.

“As he’s my coach I would like him to continue. With every coach you take a long time to know each other. It would be good if he stayed. We already have a programme,” Tšoaeli says.

“For now I’m just want to make the trip to Croatia. My aim is to do well and continue my preparations for the World Championships. I want to try to make it into the top five and also improve my personal best. In athletics you never know what can happen. My aim is to go there and fight with everything that I have,” Tšoaeli says.

On the horizon an even greater prize looms, the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

“I don’t want to go to the Olympics just to participate. I want to go there to compete and do well,” she says.

As it is Tšoaeli is a national hero, even if she doesn’t think so.

“I don’t see myself as a role model or anything like that. I’m just happy that I have set an example for other women that it is possible,” Tšoaeli says.

“I always look up to my mother,” Tšoaeli adds. “I’ve seen how she has struggled and the things she has done for me. She is my inspiration.”

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