AGNES SAMARIA: It’s about hunger and sacrifice

Virtually unknown for nearly the first ten years of independence except to her ex-schoolmates and her family circle, Agnes Samaria went on to capture the national consciousness since bursting onto the scene when she outsprinted Olympic medalist Stephanie Graf at the Stuttgart Meeting in 2003.

Samaria is no ordinary hero. She has had the world under her feat through athletics where she rose to become the flag bearer for a genre born in the hustle and bustle of Namibia township life.

Born in Otjiwarongo some 38 years ago this month, the athlete who retired from active competition in 2008 after 14 years of sacrifice, triumph and tussling admits it all may never have happened without self-motivation and conviction to succeed.

“Within myself I had a dream,” she begins. “I grew up dreaming of travelling around the world. I used to read Afrikaans novels which mentioned all sorts of things about the world outside and I fell in love with travelling, hence I gave a try at running because I wanted to travel to Botswana with the others. I had no idea that I would get there. Training became my second hobby and it took me there.”

The former school teacher, considered among the top three African women athletes of our generation alongside Mozambican Maria Mutola and Moroccan Hasna Benhassi, has travelled to almost every city in the world.

She became a consistent performer in the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) indoor meetings.

Her 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games 800m record of 1:59.15 still stands to this day and is her all time personal best, her best 400m record was in 2001 when she timed 53:83.

“The years 2001-2002 were my best year ever. I could have even achieved more had I started running at a younger age,” she said, recollecting how she went on to win silver at the African Championships in Tunisia, a week after the Manchester glory. “Not many get to reach the 800 metre line before two minutes,” she says.

Running competitively at world stage until the age of 36, many wonder how she carried all those years in those tiny legs with such great determination.

It had started with her 1994 days with the University of Namibia (UNAM) when she broke all national records in 200m, 800m and 1 500m races. The 800m record of 2:08:50 had not been broken in 18 years and Agnes, then 22, re-wrote history in 2:05:08. And that was the beginning of a fairytale run that ended at the 2008 Olympics, a journey where she had to put aside her BA degree in Physical Education, Psychology and English.

“If I had not run, I would have been like any normal woman. Running changed my life completely. My mates mocked me when I exchanged the chalk for snickers. I remember I used to beg one taxi driver to bring me to independence stadium from our house in Khomasdal.

“At times, he would carry me for free, other days he would transport me on account. I could not afford that N$15 to come and exercise, so I would pay at month end. Some days, I would be shy to ask him and I would jog from home to Independence Stadium to practise, and then ask Frankie (Fredericks) for a lift home. That taxi driver is still around today and is one of my biggest fans.”

No other Namibian athlete has been equal to Agnes Samaria’s success and none might achieve the same feat in the nearer future. She ran a lifetime career of over 150 races, 60% of them in Europe.

Just like Frankie Fredericks, she never received a cent from the athletics federation in the country but retired with more than 109 medals won over 14 years.

But it did not come without sacrifices. Although a household name in Europe and idolised in Namibia, Samaria says she lost a lot of social activeness because of athletics.

“Up to no now, I do not have a lot of friends. I missed out on family related issues because I had to give attention to my career. I missed weddings of friends and families, I missed funerals, graduation events, even of the closest people in my family, and I also missed other family life stages like a baby being born. But I don’t regret it.

I am happy I paid particular attention to my career,” said the now Chief Sport Officer in the Ministry of Sport.

She says, it is such sacrifices that today’s youngsters cannot risk.

“Today, athletes get transport to pick them up for training, if the transport does not come, they won’t also come for training.

If they get injured, they change careers and attempt something else. I was fortunate to get sponsorship from MTC and was also lucky to have run when the country was independent. Now, the opportunities are even more. It is no longer hard to get sponsorship because we opened the doors, they even have team managers. We never had those, what we had was the hunger to achieve something, which is what is lacking today.”

When she got injured at the European Outdoor games in Linz 2003, her future could have ended right there. And without the N$300 000 sponsorship from MTC, the glamour of the 2002 Commonwealth Games bronze medal would have easily faded into thin air.

In 2004 she went to the World Indoor Championships in Budapest without a team manager and had received no assistance at the Birmingham championships, the year before.

In 2004 her career was again threatened by an Achilles tendon injury that resulted in falling results.

“Injuries taught me to go through a process and I matured from what I sustained.”

She now spends her time training young athletes and is certain something will come out of them one day.

This month she took two youth athletes to the Youth Olympics in Singapore. Among them, Julia Handyene who at 16 is already clocking 2:09 in the 800m, a timing Agnes clocked when she was 29.

“They do not embarrass me. These kids have natural talent and something special will come out of them, all that is needed is more input from within themselves and the hunger to win. My only worry at the moment is that today’s athletes are not keen to invest their talent and education. It seems only myself and Frankie chose education and sport at the same time,” says the second fastest Southern African woman of all time, after Mutola.

Samaria is also UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador who dreams of someday to “work as an ambassador in some foreign diplomatic mission. I have travelled in many countries all over the world and have the worldly knowledge and personality to represent my country in this field.

It has also been my dream to become Minister of Sport someday. Sport is my life, my passion, my dedication, my destiny and I can assure you that I can and will make a difference,” she says.PF


BIRTHDAY WISH:

I always wish God had allowed me to start racing in my teens. If I had started running at a younger age, I can only imagine what else I could have done.

PROFILE:

Agnes Samaria (born 11 August 1972) is a Namibian middle distance runner who specializes in the 800 metres. She was born in Otjiwarongo.

Samaria has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2005.

Personal bests

• 400 metres - 53.83 s (2001)
• 800 metres - 1:59.15 min (2002)
• 1500 metres - 4:05.30 min (2008)
• Mile run - 4:25.01 min (2007)

Namibian Sports Woman of the Year 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007