Feature | Athletics

How a near-death experience inspired Halimah Nakaayi to 800m glory

The 25-year-old Ugandan is planning her Olympic bid: "I know even Tokyo it can be the same. My mind will be like the gold medal is mine, no fear."

By Evelyn Watta ·

Halimah Nakaayi is used to running against the tide.

Uganda's 800m world champion is also known for not wilting under pressure.

No wonder too, considering a relay run in 2012 almost proved fatal.

With the finish line in sight, she blacked out and collapsed. Word spread very quickly, 'Halimah is dead!'

"I collapsed just near my finishing point. I turned yellow. Everyone knew I was dead. News spread fast, everyone who heard the news ran wild," she recalled of the near-death experience, pieced together by what she remembers and was told by fellow athletes and the medical team.

Family and friends prayed as race organisers rushed the 2011 Commonwealth Youth Games 800m champion to the nearby Ugandan Military Forces hospital in an effort to try and resuscitate her.

Her family vehemently vowed that if she survived, she would never run again.

"I used a lot of energy trying to catch up from fifth to second. I pushed too hard and lost control in my head. I was unlucky, I started running in zig zags. Then I collapsed."

"By the time I gained my senses, I didn't know my name. Everyone was like, ‘Leave athletics'.

"All my family said, ‘Please quit, quit'," she said, her voice trailing away as she recounted that dark day.

Despite her prowess in 400m and 800m races at home in Uganda and abroad, that incident was proof enough for her family that she should stop pursuing athletics to ‘save her life’.

Overcoming barriers

Life was far from easy for Nakaayi growing up.

The 25-year-old was lucky to receive education bursaries, although her parents considered her preoccupation with sport as a potential stumbling block.

“I'm from a strong Muslim family with hajis [pilgrims]. My dad was like, 'No, you can't do it. How come in the whole family you want to claim that you will be the first athlete? Have you ever seen anyone from the central [region] running? No, no, no, you are losing track.'”

The softly-spoken Nakaayi was not being rebellious, but just wanted to be allowed to follow her passion.

“Other people who were against me running too kept saying, ‘She's a Muslim girl, she has to be covering herself and [not] running naked’.

"My mum also used to tell me, 'Halimah I need a degree from you.' You know, my mum did not get access to education; she gave birth to me when she was 15 years old. She thought maybe running would stop my studying. My dad thought the same way,” she recalled.

“With time my dad saw my performance in school is not declining as much as my athletics was progressing, so he said ‘OK you can do it!'”

Her mother’s dream came true when Nakaayi graduated with a Computer Science and Information Technology degree.

Running to celebrate life

Nakaayi's pursuit of her dreams in athletics, against her family's wishes, has now proved successful.

Her running story began on the Olympic track at the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games.

She featured for Uganda at the World Youth, World Juniors and at the last two editions of the Commonwealth Games, but failed to reach the podium.

All these memories came rushing back when she crossed the finish line in Doha to claim a surprise gold medal at the 2019 World Championships ahead of American pair Raevyn Rogers and pre-race favourite Ajee Wilson.

The diminutive runner is only the second Ugandan woman to win a world title after Dorcus Inzikuru’s 3000m steeplechase triumph in Helsinki in 2005.

“I remembered it [her near-death experience] and everything the moment I crossed the line. I knew this is God's timing. This was the time. This is my day. You know life is a journey. Life is not a straight path, there are always obstacles.” - Halimah Nakaayi

Halimah Nakaayi's incredible journey to the world 800m title

Nakaayi delighted the world with her dance after her shock 800m triumph at ...

After her shock victory, the Rio 2016 semi-finalist performed a joyful dance with team-mate Winnie Nanyondo who finished fourth in a celebration of life and her passion.

“The dance… well, we rehearsed before. Because the moment we made it to the final it was a great achievement to us."

"No Ugandan lady had ever made it to the 800m final. We said to ourselves, we will not pressurise ourselves going into the final. This was already a great achievement.

"Whichever position we shall finish our people would be as happy as we shall be. So we have to dance our dance, even if we finish number eight, or number six we have to show them our central Ugandan dance,” she said of her second attempt at gold after missing out on the final at the 2017 Worlds.

Eye on Tokyo gold

The 2019 African Games bronze medallist is always trying to make the best out of any situation she finds herself in.

She, like many other athletes, is in coronavirus-induced lockdown.

The pandemic forced the postponement of the Olympics to July 2021.

“I was targeting World Indoors which was cancelled. Then the Olympics. That shocked me. I felt bad about it, but I know they did it for our safety.

"I adjusted my mind to be strong as long as we remain alive there are many competitions to compete in.”

"Tokyo is in my mind because I'm lucky I'm also on an Olympic scholarship. And now being a world champion, I know even Tokyo it can be the same. My mind will be like the gold medal is mine, no fear."

Uganda has won just two Olympic gold medals in its history, both in athletics.

John Akii-Bua took 400m hurdles gold in a new world record at the Munich Games of 1972 with Stephen Kiprotich winning the marathon 40 years later in London.

Now Nakaayi is aiming to become the first woman from her country to scale the top step of the podium at an Olympic Games.

A new chapter is waiting to be written.