Zambian sprinter Suwilanji Theresa Fotwe Mpondela
Suwilanji Theresa Fotwe Mpondela will long remember Saturday 9 March 2019.
She made history that day, becoming the first Chair of the Athletes Commission for the National Olympic Committee of Zambia (NOCZ). She beat other candidates from 15 national sports federations such as swimming, table tennis, basketball and tennis – an incredible accomplishment for a young promising athlete that only turned 19 last month.
“My mother taught me that there are no barriers,” she said. “You carry the power regardless of age.”
A beneficiary of the IOC Scholarship, she was one of seven out of 100 candidates shortlisted by the organisation for this role.
In her new role, Mpondela wants athletes to understand the power of education and to equip them with tools that will enhance their performance power. She would like to “create a better Zambia, a better Africa and a better world”.
As an athlete in Zambia, there is little support aside from the national federation and family.
“My family has been my support system,” she says. “I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without their guidance. My siblings are my tyres, my parents are my engine and I am the car. I cannot go anywhere without any of them. They mean the world to me.”
Born in the capital Lusaka, Mpondela is one of four children to Elias Ng’andu Mpondela, the president of Zambia Amateur Athletic Association, and Judith Nankamba, a successful self-made entrepreneur.
Mpondela got involved in athletics growing up in her home backyard which was next to a primary school owned by her parents. She would see young girls and boys running during physical education and she would go over and start running with them, beating even the boys.
Today she holds the 100m record of the Independent schools Association of Zambia (ISAZ) for the U14, U16, and U19 categories. Her personal best for the 100m is 12.09. She won her first individual medal in 2018, a silver at the South African Junior Championships.
In addition, she boasts two silver medals in the 4x100m: one from the South Region Junior Championships held in Lusaka in 2017 and a more recent one in December 2018 at the Region V Games held in Botswana.
But it has not always been, as the French say ‘la vie en rose’ – an easy life. She just recently recovered from depression in the aftermath of the 2018 African Championships in Asaba, Nigeria. Ranked sixth in her country before the event, she worked hard to move up to third so that she could qualify for the women’s 4x100m relay. She achieved her goal, but she was then struck with malaria the day before her competition and was unable to compete. To this day, she believes that her team would have come back home with a medal.
There have been other challenging times such as having to shut down her Facebook page due to trolling and accusations of nepotism because her dad is the president of the athletics federation. She has also experienced hardships in trying to pursue athletics and a university education. She tried lectures between 5pm-9pm and training 9am-1pm but with time, the schedule proved taxing, especially during competitions when she still had to continue studying and preparing for exams.
Mpondela is currently trying distance learning with the intention of passing all of her courses with nothing less than a B grade. Career wise, she would like to become an entrepreneur.
She looks up to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce – a graduate, mother and entrepreneur – as a role model and says the two-time Olympic 100m champion inspired her to take up athletics. She also admires 2011 world 100m champion and 2012 Olympic 4x100m champion Carmelita Jeter.
Mpondela credits sport and athletics, in particular, for sheltering her from peer pressure and distractive paths. In fact, she classes sport as her ‘other parent’. It has taught her about life: perseverance, time management, believing in oneself, respect, fair play, taking care of one’s body, accountability, and the power of positive thinking.
Equally important has been learning to think about the next step, win or lose. She also has deep respect for her coach, Douglas Kalembo, whom she refers to as her ‘other Dad’ when in competition.
Looking ahead into 2019, Mpondela aims to qualify for the IAAF World Relays Yokohama 2019 and is targeting the African U20 Championships in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in April and the African Games in Rabat in August. She is also determined to make it to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games next year.
Aside from sport, she is a keen reader. Her favourite books at the moment are ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ by Dr Spencer Johnson and ‘Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell. When she is under pressure, she watches the film ‘I Am Bolt’ because “it shows what it takes to be a top athlete”.
She loves to cook, bake and writes a lot. Talking about climate change and what it means to her as an athlete and a young person, she noted for that February 2019 was the hottest ever in Zambia. “As sports people, we have a huge social media following and therefore can impact on many people around us,” she says. “We need to take advantage of such platforms, support agendas on climate change and raise awareness.”
When asked what she would share with IAAF President Sebastian Coe if she had a chance to meet him, Mpondela explained that she already had a plan in place.
“I have a folder called ‘The Star Programme’,” she says. “I created it because, as mentioned earlier, it is very difficult to be an athlete and student at the same time in my country but also in many others. I have put together a programme to help athletes train and to get an education in a more adapted approach and system.”
Given how far she has already come, Mpondela will no doubt continue to break barriers within the sport – both on and off the track.
Alice Annibali for IAAF