Cynthia Bolingo and her coach Carole Mebam (© Getty Images)
“Everything is possible, my girl. I love you.”
That was the last thing she said before I went into the call room, a new version of the same line she’d told me for the past seven years – in training and competition, on the best days and the worst days.
“If you put your mind to it, Cynthia, you can do anything.”
The next time I saw Carole, a few minutes after the race, she was crying, overcome with emotion at the silver medal I had won – that we had won – at the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow.
She’s not just my coach, not just my friend. Me and Carole – we’re like family.
And whatever we achieve, we do it together, against the odds.
You see, in Belgium it’s very, very rare for an elite athlete to be coached by a woman. But for me? I can’t imagine anyone else guiding my career.
Carole Mebam was an Olympian herself, in 2004 and 2008, before turning her attention to coaching after she retired.
Both of us have African roots: she’s from Cameroon, but now lives in Belgium, while my parents are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, moving from Kinshasa to Brussels a few years before I was born.
I first started working with Carole in August 2012, and from the start I knew how hard it was for her, being the only woman coach at the top level in Belgium.
But to me that’s only a positive. To have a woman coach means we have a lot of commonalities. We talk a lot about women in sports, about fashion but most of all about projects and goals that we want to realise together.
Because of that we created this special relationship.
We talk every day about sport, but also about life – about me, about her, about the world. She’s very, very strong and confident. She believed in me from the start and believes in the process.
She had to, because it hasn’t been easy these last few years.
In 2017 I lost my professional contract with the Belgian federation and that was hard. I relied on support from my family, my friends, my club and my boyfriend, who is so supportive of everything I do.
And most of all, I relied on my coach.
I had no money and it was very difficult, but during those times I’d talk a lot with her and Carole said the same thing: “every day, if you put your mind to it, you can do anything.”
It was difficult to explain to some people, why I would keep running full-time and not just get a job doing something else. “You are not earning money,” they’d say, but I told them I run because I like it, that it’s not about money for me.
My sponsor, adidas, helped me a lot. Even after injuries and bad seasons, they were there for me all the way back to 2015. That counted for so much.
I had support from the Belgian federation until 2016 but not since – even after good results they say they don’t have a lot of contracts as it’s difficult to find the money – and I can understand that.
But track and field, first of all, is a sport you do for love. It’s a sport that’s very difficult for the mind, for the body, but when doing it I always said to myself: I’m proud of you.
I might have had difficulties with the money but I am here, still showing up, day after day. For me, track and field is like the school of life.
Going to Glasgow for the European Indoors, I was considered an outsider to even make the final, but something in my mentality that weekend was different.
Before, I often found it hard to find my focus, but in Glasgow I was so switched on. “It’s not Cynthia,” Carole would joke. “You are another person!”
I could tell she was proud of how I was running, and I was proud of her for being there, coaching me to the best achievement of my career so far.
In the 400m semi-final I surprised myself. I won in a Belgian record of 52.37. After that we talked again and said the same thing as always: everything is possible.
I had a good lane in the final, so focused on going after Lea Sprunger from Switzerland, the favourite. I was so focused, more than ever before, and I very nearly caught Sprunger on the final run to the line, finishing second by just 0.01 in 51.62 – another Belgian record.
Soon after the race I met my 4x400m teammates, and all of them were going crazy. I also met Carole and she was crying – this was an arrival of sorts on the journey both of us started back in 2012.
Even at times I was struggling to see the success, it was she who kept my mind right. She shows up every day to our training group in Nivelles – Team Bam – with a big smile.
But beyond that playful exterior, her mind is very, very strong. When I’m tired and not motivated she always tells me: “stay focused, stay going, because it’s not easy but it’s important to do.”
Sport needs more coaches like her, and I hope her example encourages other women to do what she does, to know they can succeed at the highest level. After all just look at Wayde van Niekerk and Sydney McLaughlin, two stars of our sport and both are coached by women.
It’s good to change the world, one small way at a time, and remove any beliefs that high-level coaching is a man’s game.
Carole and I are not perfect, but we are trying to progress the sport of track and field together.
As important as it is for us to look at the future, when I got home from Glasgow I had to enjoy one last look at the past.
I gathered around with all my friends and family to watch the 400m semi-final and final again. It was a great struggle – both to get there and then to win that silver medal – so it felt right to relive that journey with those closest to me.
As I watched I was proud, because by this point I know that track and field is very, very difficult. But at the same time, I want to end this thing with no regrets.
I may not have money like a professional athlete, but I still train like one. My big dream, of course, is to perform in the Olympic Games in Tokyo. This year, though, my big goal will be the World Championships in Doha.
If I stay focused, it’s just like Carole says: everything is possible.