What you need to know:
- Kenya-born, Japan-based track and field coach Mayaka had spoken highly of a young Kenyan athlete whose future appears quite bright, curiosity got the better of me
- Together with Kenyan colleagues assigned to the Tokyo Olympic Games, we jumped into a taxi for the close to two-hour trip from our hotel in Ginza to the Municipal Sagamihara Asamizo Park to interview her
- The athlete, 20, only took up the sport seriously in high school when she triumphed in the nationals and in regional games. She could be Kenya’s next big name in distance running
Reporting on the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games was energy-sapping and not for the faint-hearted.
During competition days, there was hardly any sleep time, given that Tokyo is six hours ahead of Kenya, and operating on Kenyan deadlines meant signing off at between 3am and 4am, Tokyo time.
That’s the traditional newspaper deadline time of between 9pm and 10pm, Kenyan time.
Before one hit the bed, it was already time to get up and dash to the morning competition sessions.
Thus, there was hardly any time for distractions.
However, when Kenya-born, Japan-based track and field coach Stephen Mayaka spoke highly of a young Kenyan athlete whose future appears quite bright, curiosity got the better of me.
I thought it was a reasonable distraction and, together with Kenyan colleagues assigned to the Games, jumped into a taxi for the close to two-hour trip from our hotel in Ginza to the Municipal Sagamihara Asamizo Park on the outskirts of Tokyo.
The journey was made even much longer when the cab driver took the wrong turn that landed us at a totally different address.
And when we arrived at the correct Park, Mayaka and his group of seven athletes was getting rather impatient. Among them was Dolphine Nyaboke Omare, the 20-year-old Africa Junior Championships’ 5,000 metres silver medallist.
With her were Japanese distance runners attached to the Obirin University, and under Mayaka’s watch.
Mayaka, a two-time silver medallist at the World University Games (half marathon in 1997; 10,000 metres in 1995) has lived in Japan for the last three decades, married a local, taken up Japanese citizenship and has been instrumental in the development of scores of Kenyan runners in Japan.
Omare is the latest on his long list.
She never really took athletics seriously while in primary school at Egetuki in Ogembo, Kisii, only getting a bit more interested while in high school at Omobera SDA Girls Secondary School in Kenyenya, also in Kisii County.
Never mind she made the nationals at primary school in the 1,500 metres.
But it was in 2017 that Omare’s talent came to the fore when she won the 5,000m and 3,000m double at the National Secondary Schools Championships, earning a place in Kenya’s team to the East Africa Secondary Schools Championships in Gulu, Uganda.
She went on to win another regional double, attracting the eye of Mayaka, whose scouting instincts are legendary.
He was especially impressed by her winning time of 16 minutes, 49.6 seconds in the 5,000m.
But Omare suffered an injury that kept her out of virtually the entire 2018 season, bouncing back in 2019 to make the Kenyan team to the Africa Under-20 Championships in Abidjan where she won silver in the 5,000m.
“By the time, Mayaka had contacted me and two weeks after the championships in Cote d’Ivoire, I was on my way to Japan,” Omare, one of six children in the family of James Omare Onchoka and Hellen Bosibori (both deceased) recalled in our late evening interview that ran into the dark Tokyo skies.
“Even before we planned the travel, Mayaka had been supporting me by way of providing training shoes and other sports items.”
Omare’s mother died just after she was born, with her father bringing her up.
“He’s actually the one who introduced me to athletics, having been a distance runner himself,” she says of Mzee Onchoka who died a year ago last September.
Upon arrival in Japan in June, 2019, Omare first joined the Hitachi Company in Mito city, the capital of Ibaraki Prefecture, before she was spirited to Tokyo to join the U.S.E. Company Limited whose ebullient chairperson Kyoko Yoshihiro is keen on snapping up more Kenyan runners following Omare’s success.
Omare is the first athlete to be enlisted on the company’s elite athlete programme.
“They (U.S.E. Company Limited) have been encouraging me a lot ever since my coach Stephen Mayaka introduced me to them.”
She’s settled down well on the U.S.E. Company Limited roster, specialising on the 5,000 and 3,000 metres on the Japanese inter-company circuit.
“What made me fall in love with Japan is I saw many Kenyan athletes based in Japan doing well back home,” Omare explains her big move that saw her initially base her training at Hitachinaka city.
“They would come back home and we are told ‘he is based in Japan’, or ‘she is based in Japan’, and that really made me wish to be in Japan.
“Athletes like (Stanley) Waithaka, (Samwel) Masai… I wanted to come here so as to make a difference in my life, just like them.
“The climate here in Japan is also good and the facilities are good… in Kenya we struggle with facilities and support, which isn’t an issue here in Japan.”
But it wasn’t that easy for the young Omare to settle in Japan.
“It was hard… I was somehow confused, but you get used once you stay for a while.
“I’d carried my unga but it was still difficult in this new environment where they don’t eat ugali.”
Initially, language was a challenge too, and Google Translate came into play.
“However, I could understand the training programmes whenever they wrote them down.”
Omare says her dream is to represent Kenya on the grand stage, in the 5,000m.
“I want to focus on the 5,000m because that’s the race I’ve performed well in at the regional and Africa Under-20 championships.
“My dream is to represent Kenya on the big stage and run like (Olympic champion) Sifan Hassan and (world champion) Hellen Obiri.”
She has already started preparing for next year’s heavy calendar that is highlighted by the World Championships in Eugene, USA, and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, by training in a men-only group of about 40 athletes in Japan.
But why men?
“Back in Kenya I train with women athletes, but in Japan I find it difficult because the men here give me a stronger and better challenge…. Women athletes here aren't that strong.”
She urges upcoming athletes to work hard and target openings in sport.
“Sport can be an great avenue towards securing one’s future,” she quips as the lights at the Municipal Sagamihara Asamizo Park are dimmed, perhaps our cue to depart.
Tokyo is under state of emergency with 8pm the cut-off time for social activities.
Oyasuminasai!, she bids us good night in Japanese as we head back to base, the taxi driver having patiently waited for us, his meter still running, though.
Our total taxi bill came to about, yes, Sh40,000 for the two-way trip!
I caught up with Omare once again on the Qatar Airways flight back to Nairobi from Tokyo last weekend.
She’s back home for a two-month training stint, and will mainly focus her training at Ngong in a group that features her role model, Hellen Obiri.
“I’m still fighting to get to her (Obiri’s) level.
“I’d like to talk to her more and learn more about what I need to do to be like her. I wish to build on track races, specifically the 5,000m. I’m not keen on road races yet.”
Look out for the name Dolphine Omare at next year’s World Championships and Commonwealth Games trials.
She could well be Kenya’s next big name in distance running.
She was certainly worth the taxi bill, and distraction.
Name: Dolphine Nyaboke Omare
Date of birth: July 26, 2001
Place of birth: Kisii County
Club: U.S.E. Company, Tokyo, Japan
Personal best times:
3,000 metres: 8:54.47
5,000 metres: 15:16.80
10,000 metres: 35:07.0
Silver: African Under-20 Championships (Abidjan, 2019)