From Dakar to Shanghai to London; it has been quite the journey for Marie-Josee Ta Lou.
She earned the 100m silver medal in a dramatic final on Sunday night at the IAAF World Championships London 2017, becoming the second sprinter from the Ivory Coast in the history of the event to reach the podium.
It followed in the footsteps of her compatriot Murielle Ahoure, who finished second in the 100m and 200m in Moscow back in 2013.
Ta Lou was close to taking the gold medal but Tori Bowie of the US produced a spectacular lean to grab victory, edging the Ivorian sprinter by 0.01. Ta Lou equalled her personal best of 10.86, set last year in another dramatic final at the Olympic Games in Rio where she finished fourth and shared the same time with bronze medallist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.
Despite narrowly missing the chance to become the first African woman to win a gold medal at the IAAF World Championships, Ta Lou beamed a big smile after the race.
"It’s a dream come true," she said. "I didn’t see Tori Bowie when I crossed the finish line. It was a crazy feeling. I am just happy to have this medal. I didn’t expect to be in the top three because all the girls have the power and the talent to make the podium. After every competition, I get stronger."
A few minutes after winning the silver medal, Ta Lou received congratulations from Ivory Coast’s President Alassane Ouattara.
Ta Lou started her sporting career as a football player, playing at school in Koumassi, a suburb of Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast. There she caught the attention of a women’s football team that tried to enrol her. Ta Lou is a keen fan of English football team Chelsea and her famous compatriot Didier Drogba, who played for the London club at the famous Stamford Bridge for many years.
"My older brother did not want me to carry on with football, fearing that I would become a tomboy," says Ta Lou. "Some friends of my brother spotted my sprint talent when I regularly beat boys over 60 and 80-metre races and I was invited to join an athletics club."
During her final year of high school, Florence Olonade – a classmate of Ta Lou’s mother and the 1988 Ivorian 100m sprint champion – invited Ta Lou for a trial. Without preparation and running barefoot, Ta Lou beat all the girls, many of whom had previously trained for sprints.
At first her mother, who worked as as a secretary and raised her four children on her own, did not want her daughter to become an athlete because she feared that there was uncertainty in sport and encouraged her to carry on her studies and become a doctor. But in 2010 the Ivory Coast Federation offered her a four-year sports scholarship to pursue studies in China. She flew to Shanghai University with her sprint teammate Wilfried Koffi, who became Ivorian 100m and 200m champion in 2014.
"After graduating from high school, I started studying medicine at university to fulfil my mother’s wish but at the end of the 2013 season I could not balance studies and sport," said Ta Lou. "I had difficulties in passing some of my exams and faced the risk of losing the scholarship. My results at the 2012 African Championships had made me realise that I had the potential to become a elite sprinter, but things did not work out for me. I could not stay in China any longer and I decided to return to Ivory Coast."
With the help of her first two coaches, Ta Lou tried to enrol at one of the West African IAAF High Performance Training Centres in Lome and Dakar. She was on a waiting list but a place became available after an athlete decided not to go to Dakar where former IAAF Member Services Department Director and now Italian Team Technical Director Elio Locatelli worked for many years. Head coach Anthony Koffi suggested Ta Lou should be chosen as a replacement. Koffi became Ta Lou’s coach.
She continued her progress in 2014 when she finished third in the 100m in 11.20 behind Blessing Okagbare and Ahoure and second in the 200m behind Ahoure at the African Championships in Marrakesh. Ta Lou was picked for the African team at the IAAF Continental Cup in Marrakesh where she finished fourth in the 100m and fifth in the 200m.
Following her good 2014 season, Ta Lou was awarded an Olympic solidarity scholarship to prepare for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Her new agent Federico Rosa opened her the doors to compete more regularly on the IAAF Diamond League circuit and this contributed to her further progress on the international stage.
Ta Lou narrowly missed the 100m and 200m finals at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, but went on to score a 100m-200m double at the African Games in Brazzavillle, clocking a personal best of 11.02 over the shorter distance and 22.57 over the half-lap event into a headwind of -1.1m/s.
She made a further breakthrough at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in London last year, where she clocked 10.96 in the heats and in the final to clinch her first win on the top-level circuit. In the final she sprang a surprise by beating Michelle Lee Ahye and Fraser-Pryce.
"I did not know who had won and then I saw Fraser-Pryce coming to congratulate me," said Ta Lou. "I had never thought I would beat her on the track one day."
The Jamaican 'Pocket Rocket' avenged this defeat in Rio by narrowly beating Ta Lou in the Olympic 100m final by 0.007. The Ivorian sprinter also finished fourth in the 200m, breaking Ahoure's national record by 0.03 with 22.21. Missing the medal in the 100m gave her a bitter-sweet feeling.
"Reaching the final was already something big," said Ta Lou. "Not everybody gets there but it was painful to miss the medal by a very close margin. I started my preparation in January 2017 after some injury and personal problems."
Ta Lou enjoyed a busy and successful IAAF Diamond League season in the build-up to the IAAF World Championships London 2017. She became a regular star on the international circuit and continued to improve her times.
Apart from a sixth-place finish in a star-studded 200m at the Prefontaine Classic, Ta Lou finished in the top three in all of her other races in 2017. She also improved her own national 200m record in Lausanne with 22.16, finishing second behind Dafne Schippers, and won the 200m in Monaco in 22.25.
Ta Lou, along with Ahoure and Olympic finalist Ben Youssef Meite, is now a role model for the upcoming generation of young Ivorian sprinters.
"I showed that everything is possible," said Ta Lou. "There are very talented athletes in my country but they don’t have the necessary facilities to train but I want to tell them that they have to believe in themselves and work hard."
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF