*THE HUMBLE HISTORY MAKER
With her career seemingly drifting into oblivion, stained by a failed drugs-test six years ago, the country’s most decorated athlete produced arguably her greatest comeback earlier this month.
On 14 March, at a low key University of Botswana Athletics Club meet, former 400m World Champion Amantle Montsho qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (now postponed until 2021).
Displaying the determination and guts that has defined her time on the track, the 36-year-old defied her aging limbs, clocking 51.22 seconds to smash the required qualifying time of 51.35. In doing so, the Maun native once again carved her name into the history books, becoming the first Motswana to qualify for four Olympics.
Having missed out on a place at the last Games due to suspension, for Montsho it represents redemption of sorts and a final shot at a medal she was .03 of a second away from claiming at London 2012.
The current Commonwealth Champion sat down with Voice Sport’s Portia Mlilo to look back over her eventful career, a career that might contain one more incredible high.
Who inspired you to become a professional athlete?
I joined athletics when I was doing Standard Three in 1992 and by then I was doing it for fun. Our Coach at Bonata Primary School, Thobogang recognized my talent and nurtured it.
I started running 100m and 200m but by junior school I focused on 400m. When I finished my Form Five in 2003, Botswana Athletics Association called me for out of school camps and that was when I started to take it seriously.
I started competing in regional competitions. In 2006, International Athletics Federation (IAF) called me to train at their high performance training center at Dakar in Senegal.
Why did you choose to be a runner?
Athletics is the number one sport in the world followed by football. In football, when you win as a team you share the prize money while in athletics the money is all mine (laughing).
There are also many athletics competitions in a year in different countries and that is why I decided to be a professional runner.
I used to play softball but after one of my teammates got injured I decided to quit and focused on athletics.
What is the first thing you do when you wake up?
I run! (laughing). I wake up, take a shower, eat breakfast and go for training.
Is there any athlete who motivates you to do your best during competitions?
There is a lady who makes me take athletics seriously, the American track and field athlete, Allyson Felix.
She is the 2012 Olympic Champion, a three-time World Champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist. She really inspires me.
I always wanted to be a champion like her!
What do you regard as your most memorable race to date?
The World Championships in Daegu 2011 when I won the Gold medal. When approaching the finishing point I really enjoyed the moment.
It was very competitive and I was fit. I was with Felix at the front and I managed to beat her.
What is your favourite part of being on the track?
I enjoy it when I compete with the best athletes and when the fans cheer us on.
Most Batswana used to follow and support football and were not too bothered about other sports codes.
But I made them like athletics and take it into consideration!
I enjoy most when I approach the finishing line because I go all out from 150m. I also enjoy when there is an athlete who gives me competition.
Massive congratulations on being the first athlete from Botswana to qualify for four Olympic Games. How much does this mean to you?
This really means a lot. It shows I am doing something right. I had so many challenges in this career but I remained focused and do what I love most.
I am very thankful to our government, Botswana National Sport Commission, Botswana Olympic Committee, our association for giving me the necessary support to become a professional athlete.
This should be an inspiration to others, especially female athletes, because we go through a lot of challenges. You are expected to be married, have kids – people forget you also have other interests like sports career!
What makes a great athlete?
Discipline, determination, dedication and focus. You must have goals and set targets to achieve them. You have to follow your coach’s instruction.
Growing up, I was very disciplined. I missed out on a lot of things that young people considered ‘cool’.
I did not drink alcohol or smoke. It was only two years back when I could have a glass of wine, drinking not to get drunk.
You should be careful what you eat and drink. You must be disciplined, otherwise your career will be very short!
You mentioned your Gold medal World Championship winning run as your most memorable race. How did it change your life financially, professionally and socially?
My life changed. I was now the country’s diamond, a role model so I had to do things professionally.
I even had to be careful what I shared on social media because now I had a large following, both locally and internationally.
After winning Gold, I had a few endorsements and Nike increased its sponsorship. We have seen a lot of athletes struggling with life after sports so I decided to invest in property with the money I was making from athletics. So far I have six houses in Block 7 Gaborone.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a top athlete in Botswana?
Lack of facilities! Athletics is a big sport and it is high time the country establish a high performance centre.
The other challenge is when you do not deliver as the nation had expected during major competitions.
People will start bashing you and put you under a lot of pressure.
Money and fame often make people lose focus – how do you ensure you are not led into temptation?
Like I said, discipline is important. Refrain from things that will ruin your career. Avoid unnecessary trips and misusing money.
Invest for the future and do not lose focus. In life you should know what you want then it will not be easy for someone to shift your focus.
Just remain humble, respect others and manage your finances well.
How do you relax during the off-season?
I love travelling so I visit my friends in other countries. I also go shopping, especially when I have stress.
I make sure I spend time with my parents and my siblings.
The 2020 Olympics have been postponed until next year due to the Coronavirus pandemic. How is this going to affect your form and what are you going to do to ensure you remain fit?
It is unfortunate that the games are postponed to 2021 due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
I am on form and I was ready to compete. Now facilities, stadiums are closed and we do not have access to the track.
The President has also announced social extreme distancing, which is going to make it difficult to do roam work.
I will be indoor training at my house to keep fit – fortunately I have a gym.
Realistically, what was your target for the Tokyo Olympics?
My target was an Olympic medal. I had trained very hard to win a medal. This was supposed to be my last competition.
I believe I have done my part in sports and it is time to quit. I still have to talk to my coach and see if I will compete next year since I have qualified.
We’ve touched on some of the highs of your career. At the other end of the scale, what has been your most disappointing experience as an athlete?
Eish, the doping case! I tested positive for a prohibited substance methylhexaneamine at Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.
That was the worst experience I have ever had. In 2015 I received a two-year ban.
I couldn’t go home because I was afraid; my father was very angry. I also had to hide from the media and the public.
I will be forever grateful to the government for engaging a psychologist!
I stayed at the hotel for two year and I even changed my number. I couldn’t go to the mall or interact with people.
At some point I thought of quitting. The psychologist advised me not to and I also believed I can bounce back.
After three months I started training on my own because one of the conditions was that the association was not suppose to help me with anything.
I made a great come back and in 2017 I qualified for the World Championships.
How did it happen?
I went to a pharmacy in Gaborone to buy an energy drink. The pharmacist recommended the drink and said it does not have any prohibited substances. I was so depressed.
How do you intend to spend your retirement?
I want to start my own academy. I want to turn one of my houses into an athletics academy.
This is a way of giving back to my country and contributing to athletics development. I was supposed to start athletics coaching course after this year’s Olympics.
And finally, Thank God It’s Friday, what are your plans for the weekend?
Extreme social distancing. I will be locked in my room.