MARIA Mutola one of the world’s fastest women in 800 metres in her heydays has overcome odds, disappointments and dodged injuries to reach to the top.
Sport Focus ace reporter, Precious Rajane caught up with this legendary athlete while she takes us down memory lane in the days of “The Maputo Express,” her retirement and hercurrent move to football.
The Maputo Express
Born in 1972, October 27 Mutola grew up playing soccer with boys around her neighborhood until the age of fourteen (in 1986) when she was recruited to athletics by Mozambican poet, Jose Craveirinha, who according to her said there were many opportunities for her as an athlete and by looking at her play he saw great talent that should not be wasted in football.
“I did not know that there were people watching me all along, and I was surprised when approached by Jose who encouraged me to try something different in sports, athletics of all the sporting codes which has never crossed my mind. He strongly believed in me, something I thought was just a dream that will never happen when I was first approached,” recalled Mutola who is now South Africa’s Golden Girl, Caster Semenya’s mentor.
A year later she started competing in 800m competitions and since then never looked back which resulted to the naming of “The Maputo Express.” She won numerous medals and awards including 800m world champion. In 2000 she made headlines when she was the first Mozambican to win an Olympic gold medal.
“Those were the days which one will never forget, I remember Jose telling me that I could represent my country overseas only if I trained hard, which when I started doing so I saw myself qualifying for a number of international competitions. At that time it was all about doing what I love and excelling in it. The recognition I got from the government after bringing the medal home meant a lot to me, I will never trade that moment for anything.”
Mutola competed in the Olympics without achieving her dream to win a gold, but that did not kill her never say die spirit.
“I had to participate three times in the Olympics before winning the gold medal, and mind you that the Olympics come once after four years, so it was a long wait. Even though I did well in other competitions, it was not enough for me, Sydney was my last hope. There were frustrations along the way but the dream was eventually achieved.”
The three time 800m world champion retired from athletics in 2008 after she suffered several losses due to a hamstring injury. This was after dodging a couple of injuries previously, but unfortunately for her this time it was not something that a doctor can just make disappear.
“I could not compete anymore, though I forced myself a couple of times which led to loses and I had to make a decision whether to retire or to keep losing, it was not easy but it was something I had to do.
From my teen years my life has been all about athletics, running as fast as I can, at that time I was not ready to let it go but I could not abuse my body any longer and had to retire.”
“I continued losing to people I would normally beat without having to work that hard. So the frustration continued to the point that it felt like a setback, I was devastated but when I was told I could play other sports it seemed like a blessing in disguise, I was pushing myself too hard and needed some time out.”
The footballer and coach
After retirement it was no surprise that the 40 year-old went back to her first love sports, football. She was a well-known young footballer but encountered problems in her journey as there were no women’s team in her country at that time. She joined Luso Africa ladies based in Germiston in 2009, and then year moved to Mamelodi Sundowns a year later where she currently plays as a striker.
“I am no stranger to football and every time I play I remember why it was my first love from the start, training is not as hectic as it was before and unlike in athletics all depends on the whole team effort, you can share the pressure because you all depending on each other to do well in their respective position.”
“Not so long ago I was a leading goal scorer as old as I am, I don’t think I am that old, I don’t look old” she said laughing as she looked at her teammates. “Moving from Luso Africa to Sundowns is a sign of growth for me, my life up until now has been about me living my dream, being a striker is a challenge and I love challenges. I am looking forward to making a name for myself as a top striker in the South African women’s league.”
“Coaching Caster Semenya has been really great, I was honored when she asked me to coach her, and she has got talent that is a fact. Getting the gold medal is easy, the challenge is staying on top so those are some of the things she needs to work hard for and we still have a long way to go but we taking it one step at a time. It is a huge challenge for me also but I am using all my experience to prepare her for the London Olympics.”
Sport as a career
Mutola talks about the highs and lows of Sport being a career. The excitement on her face revealed that it was something she was looking forward to talking about. She quickly expressed her thoughts on the topic before heading to the change room.
“Sport is all about talent, it is great to find yourself doing something you passionate about. Sad fact is that it is not a profession where you can just relax and think you sorted, you have to dive and avoid injuries. It always wise to have something to fall back on.”