Winnie Nanyondo at the Monaco Diamond League (© Michelle Sammet)
Sometimes it’s not your competitors who beat you, but your own mind.
You stand on the start line, look across at your rivals and think about the times they’ve run: they’re supposed to beat me today, you tell yourself, and then that’s what happens.
I’ve been competing in Diamond League meetings for five years now, but it’s something I still struggle with and, at the end of last summer, it reached a point where something had to change.
I felt like I was in the best shape of my life: I had made the Commonwealth Games final over both 800m and 1500m, but when I went chasing fast times in the summer I was stuck: 4:08 for 1500m, 4:06, 4:08, 4:06, 4:06. I couldn’t go faster.
And so, after the track season, I looked back and reflected. I had run 1:58 for 800m back in 2014 but had never run faster since.
My manager, Jurrie van der Velden, came to Uganda at the end of the year and we sat down to discuss everything. He said: “Winnie, everyone believes in you and if you can just believe in yourself, you can run much faster.”
I was open with him. I said sometimes when I go races, I look at the other athletes’ times and I believe in them more than myself. He said: “Winnie, next year, try as much as possible to believe in yourself – not other people, just yourself.”
It’s harder than it sounds.
Indoors I got into a good 1000m race in France, but Genzebe Dibaba was in the line-up and in my head, I thought: I can’t come near her.
But as the race went on, I was near her. I finished second in 2:37.80, less than half a second behind her. After that, I started to think I can do something outdoors.
Good races have that effect, but bad races – or bad experiences – can do the opposite.
I remember in 2015 I was trying to qualify for the Beijing World Championships and I missed the standard by 0.02. That night, I cried and cried.
I always cry when things go wrong, and it’s good to let those emotions out. One year I travelled to the Netherlands for a race and developed an injury before – all I could do was rest. I’d see people going to competitions and that makes you feel even worse, other people qualifying while you are stuck waiting. I cried then, too.
But at times like that, you remember when things were worse.
In 2011, I was about to quit running after I finished school. I had no money and was about to enrol at university, juggling it with work at my mother’s salon. My coach left for the US and I was alone, with no one to guide me.
I told my friend I wanted to go back running and she told me it was probably not a good idea but I said I want to try: if I fail, then I’ll go back to work.
I had no money, but a friend was willing to help me. The track was 10 kilometres from my home and you need money to make that journey every day. He told me he’d share what little he had with me and when he didn’t have it, I’d just run to the track.
He gave me about 20,000 shillings a week, about five US dollars, and it was enough for me to make the journey and also get some small lunch after training. It was a hard life, and sometimes I had to walk long, long distances to be able to train, but it paid off.
Where I come from, a town about 40km from Kampala in central Uganda, people don’t think we have any talent for running, unlike other areas. But I never believed that.
During my university studies, a two-year diploma in industrial art and design, it was tough to balance training with the books. I’d miss many things in class and come back to a professor who shouted at me that I didn’t have my work done.
But I got my big breakthrough in 2012 – the World Junior Championships in Barcelona. I went there as a nobody, getting my shoes at a local market back home.
It was my first time leaving Uganda, but I loved the experience.
I finished second in my 800m heat, second in my semi-final and dead last in the final. Still, I used the experience to learn. I interacted with people and asked for different ideas: where they started, how to run better at 800m.
That was the year I met my manager, and Jurrie laid out the plan for me to become a good athlete: how I had to start like this and move up steps one by one to eventually become a full-time professional.
These days, that’s what I am, and it requires complete focus.
I haven’t fully abandoned my other career – I still love fashion and I still design clothes, jewellery and make-up – but to get where I want to be means focusing on athletics. In the future I’ll return to work with my mother’s salon, where we design traditional Ugandan wear, but right now my mind is on track.
What I learned is, if you stick at things long enough, you eventually get a breakthrough. Mine came in the past few months, when I ran a Ugandan record of 4:01.39 in Shanghai then lowered it again in Rabat with 3:59.56.
The strange thing is, I don’t feel physically any better than before, but the difference is I listen to what others told me: to get on the line and trust your own ability. To believe in myself.