Her place in the limelight has largely been overshadowed by the spectacular performance of double gold medalist Joshua Cheptegei.
Yet by any measure, Stella Chesang’s stellar performance on the 10,000 metre athletics track two weeks ago at the Gold Coast in Australia should be cast in stone as the best any female athlete from the Pearl of Africa has posted in the competition’s history, let alone bringing home gold.
But this is just a climax of a story that has been weaved for years. If she is not in the camp training, then Chesang is in her village digging or in church attending fellowship, she happily tells Sunday Monitor. Not a busy life, although with a busy schedule.
She likes to smile and her lean body is great symbol of the athlete she is, but a world-apart contrast to the story behind her success.
The girl, born on December 1, 1996 in Serere, Benet Sub-county, Kween District to Patrick Kusuro and Juliet Cheptoris, arrived in Gold Coast, Australia, a month ago unknown to many, but when she touched the tarmac on Thursday last week back at home in Entebbe, the rest of the country looked at her in awe as she dangled her gold for the world to admire.
First, she had arrived in the eastern tip of the world as a third choice, having qualified for the games on the last day of the competitions held at the Mandela National Stadium, Namboole early in the year. Her colleagues Mercyline Chelangat, games favourite Juliet Chekwel, and Kenya’s sprinter Stacy Ndiwa would only manage the distant third, fourth and second positions respectively as the youngster sweated away to the finish line. They had all posted better records when going into the games.
Hard work pays, they say. Besides the Shs10m and the elevation to the rank of Inspector of Police on Friday, the soft-spoken Police Athletics Club runner is getting a reward from her people back at home who are proposing to name Bennet Primary School after her.
Chesang’s dream to grace the tracks started here - in Benet - in 2007 when she was in Primary Five before she went to Chemwania High School in Kween for her O-Level studies. In fact, she says, Police Athletics Club poached her from the rough, uneven terrains of the mountainous area as she struggled to make a life out of a discipline looked down upon by the region’s have-it-all.
“I used to run while in lower primary but was not interested in athletics. But the games teacher called Dismas Yeko saw talent in me and encouraged me to push on. I was very tiny then, but everyone around me wanted me to run,” the second born in a family of nine, says.
With that urging, Chesang pushed on. “I would win all races at primary level but because of my size, I was never allowed to go to the nationals. So I was tied to the district competitions.”
Her star was still in the making. “I went to Chemwania High School in 2010 and the then head teacher Nathan Chemusto Mella gave me a scholarship for all the four years because of athletics,” she adds.
When she built some muscles, and now in Senior Three, a local club – Kapchorwa Athletics Association - managed then by Satya Chemonges extended their hand to the budding talent. “Chemonges came to our home and asked my parents that I go and live in his camp so that I train with them all the time. My parents accepted and that is how my fortunes changed.”
Unknown to her custodians, they had opened her gates to the world. It is her placement at the camp that caught the attention of the Uganda Athletics Federation president; Dominic Otuchet and then the Police Athletics Club came into the picture.
While in Senior Two in 2011, she went to Spain for the junior cross-country and came 39th. The performance was not bad for a sprouting talent like her, neither was it impressive for a girl who had always won all her races. She retreated back to the classroom to finish the academic demands before settling.
With O-Level done, Chesang used her placement to rise from the humble background to the international podium – and on TV!
Year after year, she has matured to become one of the country’s best female long-distance runners.
The Chesang we know
The 21-year-old’s innocent face often glows during the light moments in company of her peers or senior male runners such as Joshua Cheptegei, Moses Kipsiro or Stephen Kiprotich.
In company of greatness, it was probably a matter of time before the she would tear apart the tracks and print her name on the wall of fame. Olympic and World marathon medalist Stephen Kiprotich says her gold did not surprise him.
“I have known Chesang for several years. Her win did not surprise me because she has been focused and serious in her training. Her win has made us proud and has also inspired many sports women out there,” he says.
Key to her growth has been focus and determination, her manager Jurrie van der Velden, says “Stella is a girl who has been running international stage since 2013, doing well but not at the highest level,” Jurrie said.
“She did have some issues last year but this year, she nailed it in a 2:53 last kilometre. That (her gold) was just a pure blessing.”
Peter Chelangat, an athletes’ trainer, knows her for keeping the eye on the prize, but prefers to let her coach and also a National Sports Council official, Benjamin Njia, who is full of praise for the young athlete who he says has braved all elements of failure to come this far.
“I was assigned to train her in 2014 after Peter Wemali mismanaged the team. Raising an athlete and ensuring they stay on top of the game is not easy. But we are not sitting on our laurels; we are even more eager to win more medals and ensure that she performs better,” Njia says.
Martin Matya, one of Chesang’s neighbours in Benet, says the champion was a quiet fellow, only trumpeted by her talent while in primary school.
“She is way younger than me, but I know her as a young girl who always wanted to become a great athlete. She is from an extremely humble background. Extremely humble with many illiterate residents,” he says.
Chesang’s rise showcased in-between her studies at the 2013 World Youth Athletics Championships in Donetsk, Ukraine.
She may not have had an outstanding performance, which she prefers not to talk about, let alone remember, but the following year, she came close to winning a medal when she took fourth place in the 5,000m final at the World Junior Championships in Oregon, USA. Cheptegei won 10,000m gold in the junior competitions.
But a year later, in 2015, things became better as she took 5,000m bronze at the Africa Junior Championships in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Here, Cheptegei took gold in the 10,000m.
In 2015, Chesang claimed her first global title when she beat the field to win the senior women’s race at the World Mountain Running Championships in Betws-y-Coed, Wales. In the same year, she went to the Africa Junior Championships and bagged bronze! But he expedition in the 2016 Olympics was a nightmare, as she never made it to the finals.
As Juliet Chekwel, Racheal Chebet, Chelangat and Chesang lead the way, the bigger task is to challenge Kenya and Ethiopia’s long-distance runners in a generation, which also has 10000m world record holder Almaz Ayana.
HER TYPICAL DAY
5am: I wake up, prepare for training and meet up with the rest of the team at Kapchorwa Boma Grounds.
6am: Training begins and ends at 8am
9-10am: We return to the camp to have breakfast
10-12am: We do personal work before we head for the mid-morning jog
1-2pm: It is usually the time we have lunch then take a rest until 4pm
4pm: We go for evening jog and training for just 40 minutes
6-8pm: We take evening tea and supper at 8pm and we call it a day.
On Sundays, it is always church and camp work. The girls do the cooking since there is no cook on this day. We also clean the compound and mop the house.