by Halimah Nakaayi

For a lot of my life, people told me I was wasting my time.

Uganda had some great runners down through the years, but none of them came from the central part of our country. Everyone, even those in my family, told me people from my area, my tribe, could not succeed in this sport. It’s a good thing I didn’t listen.

If you have a dream, you have to fight for it.

I grew up in a small village, and my parents were young when they had me. My mother was about 16, my father 18, and in that situation the tradition is that the child is brought up in the boy's home. When my parents moved away to a bigger city, trying to find work, they left me with my grandparents.

The nearest school was five miles away, and I’d walk that – or run if I was late – twice a day. At school, they soon realised I could be a good athlete.

I did every event in those early years, but my parents weren’t happy about my new-found love for athletics. They believed the only way to be successful in life was by concentrating on academics.

But at a district competition, a local headmaster noticed my talent and came to my school to offer a sports scholarship to a high school in Mukono. My grandfather was dismissive, thinking that if I went off to boarding school people in the village would think I’d been taken away because he wasn’t taking care of me. But my teachers convinced him.

“Your granddaughter has a golden opportunity,” they said. “Please don’t stop her.”

Halimah Nakaayi ()

My father thought if I was going to concentrate on sports then I wouldn’t study, but I knew that wouldn’t happen. If anything, it made me work even harder in the classroom.

But there were other barriers between me and my dream.

I’m from a Muslim family, one that’s very traditional, and we have to cover ourselves whenever we’re outside the home. When they saw me putting on short tights for training, not covering my head, they said: “Halimah, you have to know where you come from, you can't change because of sports.”

I love my religion, I have all my sharias and I conduct my prayers every day, but I no longer listen to the more conservative people when it comes to what I wear for sport. Sometimes they see my running kit and think I’m not a believer, but in my heart I believe in God – that’s what really matters.

At school, I also had to forge my own path.

When I began at the boarding school, my English was so poor compared to classmates, the headmaster tried to hold me back a year. But my mother convinced them to allow me a chance to catch up.

I didn’t go home at holidays, I’d stay there and study, and every night I’d wake up at 2am to revise until 6am, then go training before my classes.

That school was big on sports – netball, football, basketball – but as an athlete I was alone. One day the games teacher, Peter, took me training after class and made me run up hills near the school.

I thought he was torturing me. I didn’t know then that there was any benefit to that level of pain.

I improved fast, and soon got a chance to compete with senior athletes, travelling to Rwanda and winning a silver medal in an international 400m. I was the youngest one on the team, the smallest one there, and I treasured that medal throughout my teenage years.

That helped me get into a good secondary school, which was located near a military barracks. There were a lot of athletes based there, so I had people to train with and would join them every morning at 6am. In 2010 I competed at the Youth Olympics in Singapore and the following year I won gold at the Commonwealth Youth Games in the Isle of Man.

Still, people didn’t believe I could be a great athlete because of where I was from, and soon they had another reason to discourage me.

That was the day running nearly killed me.

Halimah Nakaayi ()

In 2012, there was a festival celebrating 50 years of Ugandan independence and the military people organised a marathon relay. Our team was strong, and the race took place right by our school. I got the baton for the second leg in fifth place and because the whole school was out on the street – cheering and expecting a huge performance from me – I sprinted from the start like it was a 100-metre race.

The leg was 10 kilometres long, and when I eventually handed the baton over in second place, I collapsed. I was totally unconscious and was taken to hospital in a coma. News soon spread around town that I was dead.

When my father heard the news, he collapsed. When my mother heard it, she was angry. She took a taxi to the school to have the headmaster arrested for allowing me participate in the race.

When I came back to life, I didn’t know my own name, and it took some time to return to normality.

After that my family and my doctor begged me: Please stop running.

But I didn’t. I had to follow my heart. During the next school vacation, my family expected me to return home but by then I had recovered and I was starting to dream big again. I told them I’m going to a training camp in Iten, Kenya.

They were furious, thinking I was disrespecting them.

“You are mad,” they said. “Don’t you remember what happened?”

“I remember the whole scenario,” I said. “But it was not the end of my life. I have to get up and fight for my dream.”

Over time, my parents began to understand, especially when they saw how athletics benefited my academics. I went on to university, did a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and when they saw I could balance the two very well they became big supporters of my sporting career.

It’s taken years of consistency and determination to get where I am, but last year it all paid off.

The season had not been easy. I was injured a lot, I started training late, and with a month to go until the World Championships, I finished third at the All Africa Games in Morocco.

After that I went to Nijmegen in the Netherlands for my final preparation, the base of my management, Global Sports Communication. My coach, Addy Ruiter, was back in Uganda but we were lucky to have Piet de Peuter there to oversee our final few workouts. In those weeks I trained my mind as much as my body, preparing it to become a champion.

When I got to Doha, I believed the gold medal was mine.

Between the heats and the final of the 800m, we had one day off, and I remember passing the time with my good friend, Winnie Nanyondo, who had also made the final.

I told her we shouldn’t put any pressure on ourselves, that Uganda had never had an 800m finalist so we’d already made history. I encouraged her to practise our Ugandan dance in case we won a medal.

Halimah Nakaayi ()

She refused, saying that would only put pressure on us, but I did it anyway. I was relaxed, and we knew our tactics. We had to be smart, to cover every move and stay as relaxed as possible.

In the end, that’s how I became the world champion.

That’s how I broke barriers, proving to Ugandans that people from my tribe, my area, can succeed in this sport. The victory inspired many people back home, even old people who have nothing to do with sport.

I had always wanted a platform to inspire generations and now, finally, I had it. That’s why, following that win, I created a foundation to empower women and children in my country.

The reason was simple.

In Uganda, women tend to be undermined a lot, with a belief lingering that we can’t do certain things or that we’re supposed to be below men in the ranks of society. Because of that, most women are essentially locked in their houses, being housewives, and while there’s nothing wrong with doing that, I want more of them to see what possibilities they have.

I wanted to give them hope.

Halimah Nakaayi ()

I started small, taking 10 women in my village and equipping them with new skills, teaching them things like weaving, tailoring, farming – ways to earn money and become self-sufficient. It’s work I love, and a foundation I want to grow more and more in the years ahead.

I want them to realise you can change your life and become someone important even if you’re from a very poor family, even if you start with nothing. I came from deep in the village and my background was not strong for academic or sporting success, but I tell these women: success is a choice.

Once you choose to be successful, it’s the start of the journey. The next part is harder, but it’s the most important: you have to fight for it.