Spikes24 Feb 2018

Daydream believer


Mujinga Kambundji (© Getty)

Mujinga Kambundji had no great plans for this indoor season, but in the space of 7.03 seconds, everything changed. Now she's heading to Birmingham with a very different ambition.

This was never part of the plan, but sport can be funny like that.

Sometimes when you want it more than anything, your dream can be ripped apart before your eyes, and other times, as Mujinga Kambundji knows, you can magic up a performance out of nowhere, like some surprise gift from the athletics gods.

After all last month the Swiss sprinter planned a few indoor races to break up the tedium of winter training, but expected very little from them. Having changed coaches and moved back home to Bern, the 25-year-old even thought about holding her fire until the summer.

“It was an insecure time, I was training alone and it wasn’t good,” she says. “I didn’t know what to expect at all this indoor season, so I was thinking of not doing it. Eventually I said I’ll see how it goes and when it’s very bad I can stop and start again for the summer.”

She opened with a decent 7.23 clocking for 60m in Magglingen, Switzerland, then a week later in Berlin, lowered that to 7.14. A week after that in Karlsruhe she ran 7.13, which forced her to re-consider her plans. All of a sudden, the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham began to illuminate in her mind.

Then, on her return to Magglingen for the Swiss Indoor Championships, she scorched down the track to hammer the national record, her winning time of 7.03 the fastest in the world this year behind Javianne Oliver’s 7.02, which was run at altitude in Albuquerque to win the US Championships.

“I thought I could do a national record, under 7.10, maybe 7.07, 7.06, but 7.03?” she says. “I didn’t expect it at all.”

As the video circulated on social media many asked Kambundji about the peculiar
she was running on, which looked to many like a race across badminton
courts, so we’ll let her explain how it felt beneath her feet.

“It’s a little like [the courts you play on] in school,” she says. “It’s very hard, usually you can’t run with spikes on a court like this, but on this one you can. Your spikes make noises like nails on glass. It’s part of a multi-sports facility so it’s not a normal track, but it’s a good track.”

It was some feeling, to move that fast across any surface, though it’s one Kambundji has been used to her whole life.

Child prodigy

At the age of seven, she ran her first race in school, though it was two years later before Kambundji followed her older sister to join the local athletics club in Bern. Her father, Safuka, was born in the Congo and moved to Switzerland several years before Mujinga was born, while her mother, Ruth, was a Bern native. Both had sporty backgrounds but neither were athletes, though it was obvious very early that they’d passed on good sprinting genes to Mujinga.

“I was always fast,” she says. “When I was young I was faster than the boys. I was second in my first competition but then I always won everything in my age.”

At the age of 14 she was Swiss junior 60m champion, running 7.73, and two years later she first represented Switzerland at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Italy, finishing sixth in the 200m. In 2011 she lowered the Swiss 100m record to 11.53, run to finish fifth in the European Junior 100m final, and in 2012, having just turned 20, she competed at her first Olympic Games in London, going as part of the Swiss 4x100m team.

Being part of that relay was the most memorable experience of her career at that point, but two years later, Kambundji would experience the perils of the sprint relay in the most painful way possible.

Hard times

The 2014 European Championships in Zurich had been the best week of her career, Kambundji shining like never before in front of her home crowd, lowering the Swiss 100m record to 11.20 and finishing just outside the medals when fourth in the final.

In the 4x100m final, Kambundji was tasked with the opening leg, but as she rose from the blocks when the gun fired the baton slid from her hand and that was it, race over, the 22-year-old left in tears as her teammates tried to console her.

Mujinga Kambundji at the 2014 European Championships in Zurich

She picked herself up, as she had to, and thankfully had a chance to exorcise the demons of that race just two weeks later at Zurich’s Diamond League meeting, the Weltklasse. “I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it because I knew I had to run again, and knowing I was running again helped a lot,” she says. “I was okay, I wasn’t traumatised or anything like that.”

Ever since, however, Kambundji has preferred to take other legs on the Swiss relay team, which has improved massively in recent years, finishing fifth in the 4x100m at the IAAF World Championships in London last year.

“When we started I was the fastest at 11.50, and now everyone is running at least 11.30,” says Kambundji. “Before we had a chance to maybe to get a medal if someone made a mistake, but now if we do a really good race we have a chance to get a medal, and not because some other team makes a mistake.”

Of course, the biggest way Kambundji can contribute to the team is by improving her individual speed, and that’s been a work in progress her whole career. For many years she had been coached in Mannheim, Germany by Valerij Bauer, Kambundji driving the three hours there from her home in Bern each week and mixing her time between the two cities.

Switching hour

But after London last year, she felt the time had come to make a change. It wasn’t that Kambundji ran badly – she clocked 11.11 in the 100m, 22.86 in the 200m and reached the semi-finals in both – but to take that extra step to the top she knew she needed something different.

“It was easy to make the 200m final so I was disappointed,” she says. “I knew I should have done better. It was okay, not bad, but I wanted more and I knew that if I do the same next year, then the result will be the same.”

Mujinga Kambundji in the women's 200m semi-finals at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London

Kambundji moved back home to Bern full-time this winter, where she continues to study economics at a local university, juggling her academics around her training routine. She has been advised in recent months by her old Swiss coaches, but is essentially now coaching herself, though she expects that to change in the coming weeks.

“I’ll go abroad,” she says. “When I went to Germany I was looking for a group with sprinters, because I like to train with good athletes. I don’t want to coach myself. It’s okay for the indoor season. I’m enjoying being home because I know in a few weeks, months, I’ll be away again.”

The chief goal this year has always been August’s European Championships in Berlin, where Kambundji will hope to emulate her medal-winning performance in the 100m at the 2016 edition.

Mujinga Kambundji at the 2016 European Championships in Amsterdam

“My goal is always to make the final and race the best I can,” she says. “I don’t like to predict it too much, because you might run a PB but not get a medal.”

Before that, of course, Birmingham is on the agenda. The 60m may be the most pressurised of all puzzles, but it’s one Kambundji has relished taking on this season. “When you run the 100m, if your start is not good you can sometimes catch up but 60m is just too short, there’s no room for mistakes,” she says. “It’s more pressure, a different pressure.”

But it’s one she’s more than ready for.

“Before I thought it would be good to make a final but now, with that time, it’s to get there and see what happens,” she says. “My goal is to get to the final, give it my best, and see what I can do.”

Words: Cathal Dennehy

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