One of the country’s successful female sprinters, Tjipekapora ‘Tjipe’ Herunga, says she plans to retire from the track in two years’ time, but only after qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games.
Herunga was one of five Namibian sprinters that were sent to Jamaica in 2013 by the Ministry of Sport, Youth and National Service as part of the failed long-term training programme, whose main aim was to improve Namibia's chances of winning medals at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
The Namibian athletes were to train with Jamaican superstars like Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell, among others, however, none of the selected athletes qualified for the 2016 Games.
The other four athletes in the Jamaican programme were male sprinters Hitjiverue Kaanjuka, Globine Mayova and Dantago Gurirab as well as female hurdles champion, Lelanie Klaasman.
The Namibian government bankrolled the Jamaican sports/academic programme at a cost of N$7 million each year.
Herunga’s talent was discovered at the tender age of 15 during her school years at C. Ngatjizeko Primary School.
“As I was growing up, I was a very active child that liked running up and down and playing around. I even remember when my friends and I made our own track next to our house and used it for racing. I always tried to beat everyone that I was running with including the boys; that was how ambitious I was.
“I went with that spirit of running from primary school to high school where I was discovered by Stanley Tjozongoro when he saw me running. He told me that I have talent and that I can go far.
“Another man that I will not forget is Alpha Kangueehi (former president of Athletics Namibia) who was also the president of the first athletic club I joined when I came to Windhoek. He motivated and helped me with baby steps,” Herunga told the Windhoek Observer.
Herunga was born at Ehungiro Village in the Otjinene Region 30 years ago, before she moved to another village, Otjiteke also in Otjinene under the care of her grandmother Maria Katjove.
She grew up idolising middle distance runner Agnes Samaria because of her ‘never-give-up spirit’.
“I consider her the most important and inspirational athlete,” Herunga said of Samaria.
Despite having “qualified” for the 2016 Summer Olympics, Herunga was not part of Team Namibia at the Games because of confusion between her coach Letu Hamhola and the Namibia National Olympic Committee (NNOC) President, Abner Xoagub.
Hamhola argued that Herunga had qualified in the 400m race with a time of 52.20 when she participated in an event in Jamaica, however, Xoagub said the event was not recognised by the NNOC.
Herunga never really recovered from the 2016 debacle, and she also failed to qualify for the 2018 Commonwealth Games that were held in Australia.
“My worst moment was when I was removed from the Olympics team in 2016 as it was a very difficult and emotional time. I felt like my dream was taken away from me, but later, I had to make peace and move forward.
“My high point in my athletic career was when I won medals at the All-African Games in 2011(bronze medal in the 200m) and 2015 (bronze medal in the 400m) as it is not easy to win a medal at major competitions, especially when you are racing against some of the world’s top class athletes.
“This year, was a rough year for me because I did not perform to the best of my ability even though I was free from injury. My best time this year was 53.5 when I ran in Europe and in Austria,” Herunga said.
Her target now is to qualify for her second Olympics after she participated at the 2012 Games in London.
“My dream is to be part of the 2020 Olympics which will also be my last Olympic Games because I am getting old. I will be 32 that time and I will just need to work extra hard and focus in order to qualify for the Olympic Games,” said Herunga who is employed in the Namibian Police Force as a Constable.