Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by coronavirus, has in typical wartime speak been christened enemy. The world has frantically looked over its shoulder as an invisible enemy closes in.
It’s a fear that bears a not necessary close but perhaps remote resemblance to what subsumes Halima Nakaayi down the home straight.
Last September, having initially been dismissed as a pony among thoroughbreds, Nakaayi perfectly timed a homestretch kick to an 800m world title in Doha, Qatar.
The almost overnight success has not changed the 25-year-old. She has continued to convey quiet competence and a minimum of fuss even in the explosion of photographers’ flashbulbs and spotlights.
Before the coronavirus pandemic forced the sports world to step off the treadmill, Nakaayi was working herself back into form ahead of the now postponed Tokyo Olympics.
She enjoyed rope lines and now-forbidden handshakes after getting a second placement at the sixth stop on the 2020 World Athletics Indoor Tour in Lievin, France. That 800m race at the tail-end of February would prove to be her last competitive one before the menace of Covid-19 reared its ugly head.
The frenetic pace of life has subsided as global leaders struggle to grasp the magnitude of the pandemic, with countries introducing travel restrictions and domestic measures such as lock down.
Apocalyptic warnings have also forced postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games for a year. And, athletes, much like everyone else, now find themselves hunkering down to spend what could be a very long stretch of time at home.
Nakaayi, who shares a rented house with long-time training partner Winnie Nanyondo in Namboole, says she is trying to wrap her head around what essentially is a forced break from the grind.
“It is disappointing,” she says of the trail of devastation Covid-19 has left behind, “but I’m mentally strong and our coach made some useful adjustments to our training.”
Ruiter keeps Nakaayi going
Since 2016, Nakaayi and Nanyondo have trained under the tutelage of Addy Ruiter. The Dutchman also works with middle distance runner Ronald Musagala, 26.
But it is the presence of Joshua Cheptegei in his stable that has made Ruiter’s stock come to bear an almost intriguing allure. The 23-year-old distance runner needs little introduction, thanks to the laundry list of his feats.
“The athletes under my guidance now train in small groups of three to five mostly from their home environment,” says Ruiter, who also runs the rule over steeplechaser Peruth Chemutai.
“We try to carry on training, but adjust ourselves to the guidelines given by government. We can no longer move by car and the track is closed.”
Most of the athletes under the Dutchman’s care have a great fortitude; they are intensely determined. Musagala, 26, who set three national 1500m records last year, for instance, famously drove eight hours to set up a meeting with Ruiter in Kapchorwa in April of 2018.
“Why they have reached the world top is reflected in their behaviour during such a crisis as now,” Ruiter says, “They cope well with setbacks and disappointments, adapt quickly to the ever-changing circumstances and are not discouraged. They remain highly motivated.”
Nakaayi shares the same sentiments. The unassuming world champion nowadays trains outdoors in isolated places that probably tug at her development.
“It is difficult but there is no choice. We’re always flexible, so we’ve adjusted already,” the 25-year-old notes. “I miss competitive races, but I also know that coronavirus has affected everyone in the world.”
These are indeed interesting times in which – much like any wartime – the present is saturated in past and future. Hope and fear live side by side.