Tecla Chemabwai is an iconic athlete whose name is imprinted in the history books of Kenya. She broke the ice by being the pioneer female olympian from Kenya when she took part in the 1968 Olympics that were held in Mexico City. The other women from Kenya who took to the tracks were Elizabeth Chesire and Lydia Stephens Oketch.
Chemabwai hung her spiky shoes in the 1980s and embarked on teaching and businesses. The Uasin Gishu based retired athlete holds an illustrious career and behind her is a fascinating story that borders on resilience and seizure of life-changing opportunities. Here is her story and biography as told by WoK.
Early Life and education
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She was born in Nandi County. Though different sources have varied information pertaining her year of birth, she divulged to the Standard that she was 13 years in 1968, which indicates that she was born in 1955.
When she was young, she participated in various games such as netball, soccer and volleyball. However, because her primary school was 11 kilometers away, it necessitated that she had to run to and fro school.
When she made her mind to pursue athletics, her mother discouraged her, alleging that she would be rendered barren. But in an act of defiance in pursuit of opportunities, she shrugged off her mother’s warning.
“There was that mentality that if I continued running, maybe I wouldn’t be able to give birth,” she says.
Her prowess on the track was unmatched and by the time she was in class 5, Chemabwai was already representing Kenya in East Championship.
1968 Olympics: falsified age and the cultural shock
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Chemabwai was only in class 6 when she was chosen to represent Kenya in the 1968 Olympics. However, there was an age obstacle that could prevent her from getting a passport. Back then, minors would not be granted a passport.
The Kenyan officials altered her age and indicated that she 18 years old while she was only 13 years. The journey to Mexico was the first time for her to board the plane. She also had other anxieties about the race because she had never competed with white athletes and felt inferior even before the 400m race. In essence, she was only going to compete as a matter of national pride rather than emerging victorious.
“We were very young at that time and we were so proud to be the first three (ladies) to represent not only the country but women as well”.
“I didn’t care whether I was going to run or not, I was getting on a plane to visit a new place. I was meeting new people and for the first time I was in close proximity with white people and even eating with them in the same dining hall; I wasn’t used to these things,” she said as captured by All Africa.
Chemabwai was eliminated in the heat stages after posting 53.96 seconds.
Winning gold and change to 800 metre race
In the 400m race held during the 1972 Olympics held in Germany, she was again unsuccessful but this time round she reached the quarter finals. In 1973, she won gold in the All Africa Games in the same discipline.
In 1974, while in Kapsabet Girls High School, she received a scholarship to go to the US for further studies and athletics training.
“I received a letter indicating that I had to proceed but then I had not even completed high school. I went to the US and met a lady who engaged me properly in training,” she divulged in an interview.
Chemabwai studied physical education and psychology at the Chicago State University. She was however encouraged to change shift to the two lap race given the cutthroat competition in the 400 metre race.
“In America, everybody is a sprinter (and) chances of me excelling in sprint were nil. So my coach proposed that I run the 800 metres and I did very well,” she says.
The athlete however never participated in the 1976 Olympics as Kenya pulled out of the race in the eleventh hour to protest against apartheid. In 1978 Commonwealth Games, Chemabwai won silver in the two lap race.
She retired in early 80s and in 1986 got married to Julius Sang; an athlete who also represented Kenya in the 4×400m relay. The couple was blessed with 5 children. However, Sang passed away in 2004.
She taught in the area of her profession at Mosoriot Teachers Training College and Rift Valley Institute of Science and Technology. She takes pride in having mentored Tegla Loroupe. Additionally, she also worked at Moi University until barely two years ago when she left the job to focus on her personal engagements.
Chemabwai owns approximately 20 acres of prime land in Moi’s Bridge, arguably the second largest town located in Uasin Gishu County. She practices dairy farming and also grows maize. The farm is located in the southern part of the town and also has a small forest with huge eucalyptus trees.
In 2018, she founded her own school named Chemabwai Sang Educational Centre in Eldoret. The idea behind the inception of this institution was to tap athletic talent at a tender age. It offered education even to the less privileged learners.
“I decided to come and give myself a full time job and see how best I could help these young and upcoming children so that I could tap their talents a little bit early,” she said in an interview.