NAIROBI, Kenya, October 14- Grace Momanyi banished the unpleasant memories of Beijing with a stunning win in the women’s 10,000m at the Commonwealth Games.
The Kenya National Cross Country women’s champion, Grace Kwamboka Momanyi, is enjoying a renaissance in her career. The mother-of-one had an injury-plagued 2006, missing most of the season, and at one time she thought her career was over as she battled a ravaging hip injury as well as illness.
But months of intensive therapy saw Momanyi make a comeback in late 2007 and seal her spot in the team for the World Cross Country Championships, in Edinburgh, capped an outstanding few months during which she erased doubts about her own talent and capability.
Born in Masimba Village Kisii District, the first in a family of three, she was the typical young Kenyan prodigy, breaking through the ranks while very young by competing in road races in the United States, Mexico and Canada. She attended Gesicho Primary School from 1990 to 1998 and it was here that she launched the baby steps to her athletics career.
"My first time to run was in class four when I won the 10,000m race at a schools’ meet,” Momanyi recalled. “It was incredible since I had never even trained.” She continued running while in primary school because of the incentives presented to the winners, like sodas, bread and little cash prizes. The races made her popular in her village, earning her reputation as a star in the making. "People used to fear me and would watch out for me in races," she reminisced.
Born into a sporting family – her father was a former footballer while her mother was an athlete – Momanyi received a lot of encouragement from her mother but her father was dead against it. "My mother could see I had talent and urged me to pursue it, telling me I could earn a livelihood from it, but my dad was far from pleased and wanted me to concentrate on education instead."
Momanyi joined Gusii Highlights in 1999 for her secondary school education and it was here that she made her first journey to the US in 2001 to compete at a road race while in form three. She finished second at the Crazy 8s 8K race in Kingsport clocking 26:05.8.
Then she won the Wharf to Wharf 10km, beating veteran Jane Omoro to win in 31:23. She also won the Shelter Island 10km race (34:09). Momanyi then came fifth at the 2001 Azalea Trail run (33.29) as her road running career got off to a great start.
In 2002, she retained her Shelter Island title, shaving 21 seconds off her winning time the previous year. She completed her secondary school education that year and fell pregnant. She began 2003 by marrying Timothy Momanyi, the groom being a former athlete. On 25 February she gave birth to a boy, Billy.
Now a mother, Momanyi resumed training barely three months later, preparing for the 2004 season. She started with a third place finish in the women’s long course race at an Athletics Kenya National Cross Country Series meet, in Eldoret, and was then selected to represent Nyanza South at the National Championships. Momanyi found the going tough, finishing down the ladder, in 27th position.
After suffering malaria, Momanyi could only manage seventh place at the Olympic trials over 5000m (16:17.41) but recovered to win the Maracaibo Half Marathon in Venezuela (1:14.17). In 2005, she could manage only 27th at the National Cross Country Championships and admitted to overtraining. Turning away from the track, and concentrating on the road, Momanyi won the Oginga Odinga 15K race in Kisumu before breaking the eight-year-old half marathon course record, in searing heat, at the Medio Maraton De Coban (1:13.10).
Eight days later, Momayi shattered a 16-year-old record in Ottawa (held by Albertina Dias) when she won the women’s MDS Nordion 10km (31:24.4) Momanyi then travelled to Mexico, where she won Saltillo Half Marathon (1:12.55)
In 2006 another bout of malaria put paid to her hopes of making the national cross-country team. In April, she left for Japan where she joined Daihastu Athletics team, based in Osaka. This would however, mark the start of the most difficult period of her career as she struggled with injury and illness.
First she was diagnosed with anaemia and, from May to July, she trained lightly as she was on medication. "I think my body just disagreed with Japan, with the weather, food, training and everything,” she said. In August, just as she was beginning to feel her way back to running, she suffered a hip injury that would lay her off for another five months.
"I was feeling pain from my ankle, all the way up to my hip and it was so painful I could barely walk,” she said. In December she came back to Kenya still struggling with the injury and started treatment, mainly physiotherapy after consulting a doctor in Kisumu.
"My husband was very helpful during this period,” she said. “Having had his career curtailed by a knee injury, he really helped by massaging my hip as the doctors had ordered. He was there supporting me emotionally every time I felt like giving up." There were no celebrations to mark the beginning of 2007 for she could hardly walk. Her husband continued massaging her leg diligently and it duly started improving.
Momanyi resumed light training in March, jogging for 20 minutes at a go. "It was so much relief that I could finally jog and I really cherished those moments." Under the watchful eye of her husband, she stepped up training increasing it to an hour daily in April.
Suffering no reactions, she continued build-up in earnest and, on 14 September, marked her comeback with a bang, winning the Safaricom Sambaza 10km in Gucha, in her native Kisii in 35:10. On 5 October, she notched her second successive victory at the Safaricom Kebirigo Road Race where she took top honours in 34:12.6.
Now fully back in the swing of things, Momanyi won the women’s 8K race at the Kisii Cross-Country Championships. Her third straight triumph was achieved in 28:00.04 on 15 December. On New Year’s Eve, she stretched the run to four when she triumphed at the Sao Silvestre de Luanda 15km road race in Angola in 53:13.
After the national cross-country series was disrupted by post-election violence, forcing the cancellation of the last two meets, all athletes had only one shot at places in Kenya’s team to Edinburgh. And that came at the IAAF Permit National Cross-Country Championships cum trials.
During the keenly contested race, Momanyi stayed in the middle of the pack until the final two laps when she joined front runners, 2006 Fukuoka World Cross junior champion Pauline Korikwiang and her successor in Mombasa, Linet Masai as well as Armed Forces pair Lineth Chepkurui and Doris Changeywo.
In the last 500m, Masai and Momanyi pulled away and the latter showed the reigning junior champion a clean pair of heels in the last 200m. Her victory was shocking since none of local and international pundits had made any mention of her in their build-up pieces as she booked an automatic ticket to Edinburgh.
"I am so pleased, especially since the field was very competitive and the weather a bit too hot,” she said. “I felt strong as we approached the finish and I was able to pull from Masai." Such is the maturity she displayed at the Kigari training camp in Embu that coaches appointed her deputy team captain.
The 27-year-old is set to join the Police force later this year. "They have already taken my papers and hopefully I will join later in the year," she said. Combining a fledgling athletics career and motherhood does take its toll but Momanyi attributes her success to a supportive husband.
"I have a husband who is supportive and who understands the demands of athletics. He used to run so he really knows what is needed. He got injured in 1999 and since then he takes care of the family and trains me. He played a key role in my recovery by massaging my hip throughout the months. Even now when we are in camp, he is at home taking care of our farm as well as Billy, thus I am able to focus on my training."
At the World Cross Country Championships held in Edinburgh in March, she finished a creditable tenth in her first ever appearance at the Championships.
Momanyi was back for the trials in Nairobi for the African Athletics Championships in Addis Ababa, easily winning the 5,000m in 15:49.7.
5000m: 16:01.3 (2004)
Half Marathon: 73:05 (2005)
5000m: 2004 – 16:01.3, 2005 – 16:32.7
Half Marathon: 2004 – 74:17, 2005 – 73:05
2004 1st Maracaibo Half Marathon
2005 1st Saltillo Half Marathon
2005 1st Medio Maraton de Coban Half Marathon, Guatemala
2007 1st Sao Silvestre 15km, Angola
2008 1st Kenya National Cross Country Championships
10th World Cross Country Championships