When Halimah Nakaayi burst into an exuberant dance of delight alongside her fellow Ugandan Winnie Nanyondo moments after clinching a shock 800m gold medal, it provided one of the feelgood memories of the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019.
It was a moment of sheer ecstasy for the hitherto largely unknown gold medallist but perhaps it was the elation shown in equal measure by Nanyondo, who had just finished fourth and missed out on a medal by 0.34, which perhaps left an even stronger impression.
Both were acting on sheer impulse, expressing their unadulterated joy at Nakaayi’s thrilling victory - a pair of close friends and training partners who had known each other for more than half a lifetime celebrating together in unison.
Any personal disappointment Nanyondo may have felt instantly swept to one side as she euphorically celebrated Nakaayi’s success in a Ugandan record of 1:58.04.
“Halimah had started the year with an injury and had many problems, so it was a surprise to many people (that she won gold), but not to me,” explains Nanyondo. “I know how well Halimah can perform. We are one big family. We live together, train together and eat together. I know that if Halimah wins, then I too am a winner. This was Halimah’s time, and I was happy for her.”
Forming an early bond
Both born and raised in the Central region of Uganda near the capital city of Kampala, far from the country’s traditional athletics stronghold in Eastern Uganda, they first met as promising athletes in inter-school competitions.
Back then Nakaayi ran the 200m, 400m and 800m while Nanyondo chiefly competed in the 1500m and 5000m but speaking the same language – Luganda – and hailing from the same area the pair formed an connection. A bond which strengthened after they started rooming together as teenagers attending training camps during the school holidays.
“At first we were not close friends,” explains Nanyondo. “We used to talk occasionally and give each other advice. But after we started to know each other better from the training camps we became a lot closer.”
Similar dreams, similar mindset
Nakaayi, 25, who last year also won an All Africa Games 800m bronze medallist, agrees with her long-time training partner’s sentiments and says the pair also share a similar mindset.
“We both have the same dreams (to succeed in athletics),” she explains. “We are both fighters, and no matter how hard the situation, we persist in order to meet our goals.”
Forging a close friendship from their time attending training camps together the pair later decided to live together while attending Kampala University – and for the best part of ten years the pair have remained living under the same roof.
Today sharing a rented home five minutes from their training track in the Kampala suburb of Namboole, the pair typically live together five days a week before returning to spend time with their respective boyfriends on a weekend.
Yet despite hailing from the same region, sharing the same language, living in the same house and aspiring to the same track dreams, it would be wrong to view the twin Ugandan middle-distance talents as the same entity. They are quite different both on and off the track.
Feeding off of each others strengths
Nanyondo, an 800m and 1500m runner (she set a national record of 3:59.56 in Rabat this year), possesses the better endurance of the pair and Nakaayi, an 800m specialist, the superior natural speed but their complementary qualities has helped both athletes.
Nakaayi can today complete the longer runs much more comfortably while Nanyondo’s speed has markedly improved thanks to regular training with her good friend.
“I used to be ten to 15 metres behind on the 200 metre repeats,” explains Nanyondo. “But Halimah always encouraged me to try to close the gap. Now it is often a two metre difference and sometimes we sprint together (at the same speed),” she adds with a trademark laugh.
Their personalities also differ. Nanyondo admits she is “always talking” while Nakaayi is “quiet” (although throughout the interview it is Nakaayi who dominates the conversation). Meanwhile, Nakaayi describes her training partner as more emotional, a point the World 800m fourth-placer is prepared to concede.
Interestingly, the pair also have different religious beliefs with Nakaayi a devout Muslim and Nanyondo a practising Christian and both are fully accepting of their respective faiths.
“I conduct my daily prayers (as a Muslim),” says Nakaayi. “But sometimes we hold our hands together in prayer. We believe that praying together works for us.”
Another common denominator: coach Ruiter
Both are also in total agreement that their careers have been transformed since they started working with their current coach, Addy Ruiter, back in 2016.
The Dutchman, who shares his time between his homeland and Uganda, has overseen a consistent improvement in the performances of both athletes. However it was the pair’s significant advance in 2019 – which elevated both to new national records – not to mention the former athlete’s global success in Doha, which has propelled them to a higher level.
Training two to three times a day – the pair have also been hugely supportive of one another during the tough times.
“Training and living together has taught us the importance of teamwork,” explains Nakaayi. “At certain times you feel weak but when I see Winnie working hard, that encourages me to work harder. If the other athlete is feeling down we try to motivate each other. We just have to keep pushing to show that we can do it.”
Supportive off the track
Away from the track the pair also hang out. They eat lunch at the same restaurant each day in Kampala and watch TV together. “If our minds needs to be free we watch a love story on TV or a movie to rest,” explains Nakaayi.
A former fashion and design student, the 26-year-old Nanyondo designs dresses, necklaces and anklets and is always happy to dish out fashion advice to her good friend and training partner.
“Winnie is very creative and if I need a dress, I always ask her if it matches with my body shape,” explains Nakaayi.
Not that the world 800m champion always agree with Nanyondo’s viewpoint and like any good close friend she is prepared to offer an honest appraisal.
“I’m supportive but sometimes I will tell her if the design will not work out,” she adds with a laugh. “Sometimes I will criticise her in order to make her re-think the design.”
Their close friendship has also not been fractured by Nakaayi’s gold medal success. The world champion has naturally garnered lots of attention in her homeland since becoming the first Ugandan to win a global 800m title, but she has resolutely stuck to the old routines
“I may be a gold medallist but I live a simple life,” she insists. “I know there is much more hard work ahead of me. It is not like I’m moving around with a convoy,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not a superstar. Before the World Championships we ate lunch at a small restaurant and even after winning gold we continue to eat there.”
Both are targeting what would be a first Olympic medal for a Ugandan woman thus there is no lack of motivation in 2020.
But following Nakaayi’s golden day in Doha, Nanyondo is adamant she too can match her younger training partner by 14 months.
“I know this year is going to be my year and I’m working hard to keep my mind strong,” she says. “We train together and live together there is no difference between Halmiah and I. If Halimah can do it, I can do it too.”
Steve Landells for World Athletics