When strangers discover that Faith Ogallo competes in martial arts, they generally have one of two responses, particularly if they’re men.
“Being a lady, I am usually asked whether I am not worried about being disfigured, and others also ask whether I am an aggressive type of person outside the ring,” she said.
It’s unlikely they’d ask a male taekwondo professional the same questions. But rather than taking offence, Ogallo relishes the chance to set them straight.
“This gives me the chance to convince them that impossible is nothing. Women can do better both in sports and in normal life, with self-discipline, respect and boundaries. This also helps the field of martial arts to grow among women and reduces the stereotypes linked with gender and sports,” she said.
As for the chance of disfigurement, Ogallo just smiles.
“I have no worries at all. I train based on scientific principles. My taekwondo coach is a professional in the sports field which is an added advantage to me. During training I am taught about conditioning, anatomy, and injuries and their management, so I understand the human body and hence am very cautious while training by doing the right exercise.
“Scientific training helps me improve on my physical ability, fitness components, flexibility, reaction time, strength, power, speed, balance and agility.
“When you do the right exercise, it’s very rare for one to get disfigured … and just in case that happens, you seek medical attention and rest until you recover from the injuries.”
The question about aggression is the most bemusing to the third-year social work student. “My future profession is focused on helping people and solving social problems. It needs discipline.
“I sacrifice much time to make sure I balance each and every activity. I live a normal life outside the ring, just like any other person. Like a police officer while on duty and off duty,” said Ogallo.
From basketball to the martial arts
The 25-year-old Kenyan’s success on the taekwondo mat is a relatively recent development. Not long ago – only two years, in fact – she was representing her university on the basketball court. Now she’s preparing to represent her country on the greatest stage of all, the Olympic Games.
Ogallo is the only Kenyan to have qualified for the taekwondo competition at the Tokyo Games and while that ambition was put on hold for a year as a result of Covid-19’s intervention, 12 months isn’t too long to wait.
She is, after all, still new to the sport. It was only in 2018 that her university taekwondo coach spotted her playing a game of basketball and recommended that she switch codes.
“I was advised by Eliakim Otieno, a sports scientist and taekwondo coach. His reasoning was that unlike basketball, which is a team sport, taekwondo is individual-based and, considering my dedication and physique, I would most likely achieve more. Kibabii University’s taekwondo team has performed very well at both national and international level, so I had no objection.
“I had read about [the] Kibabii University taekwondo team on the website. The university has been known for taekwondo since 2012 and their ranking impressed me. They are Kenya University Sports Association national champions since 2012, East African University Games champions since 2016, All Africa University Games champions since 2015, among other titles, and I can say this influenced my decision.”
Ogallo still plays basketball for fun, along with netball, athletics, race walking, tug-of-war and handball. But as Otieno predicted, it’s taekwondo that has brought her the most success. She excelled from the start, rising to represent her country after only a few months.
“I faced numerous challenges at the start, including the obligation of defending the title that I inherited from my former teammate who graduated. This meant I couldn’t lose and let the team down.
“When I was barely three months in the university taekwondo team, my coach took me to Rwanda for exposure, where I participated in the Rwanda Korean Ambassadors Championship on 7 October 2018 and won a gold medal.
“This was ahead of the [Kenya] University Sports Association national games in Nairobi on 23 November 2018, where I won a silver medal and the East Africa University Games in Dodoma, Tanzania, on 17 December 2018, where I won a gold medal.”
Since then, she’s impressed national selectors to such an extent that she earned a national team call-up and represented Kenya at last year’s All Africa Games in Morocco. There she claimed victories over Algeria’s Linda Azzedine and Egypt’s Mennatullah Abdalaal in the heavyweight division (+73kg) before finishing with the silver medal after going down to Morocco’s 2018 Youth Olympic champion, Fatima-Ezzahra Aboufaras, in the final.
“My worst performance at a national event was a silver medal and internationally, a bronze medal,” she pointed out.
‘Believe, begin, become what you want to see’
In February this year came the big one, the 2020 African Taekwondo Olympic Qualification Tournament in Rabat, Morocco. Ogallo once again excelled in the preliminary rounds, eventually defeating Chad’s Florence Eldjouma 27-21 in the +67kg heavyweight division to book her spot in Tokyo.
Her Kenyan teammates all fell just short of achieving the same feat, with Evelyn Aluoch (welterweight), Newton Maliro Nambani (heavyweight), Edwin Lemiso Leshao (featherweight) and Peter Yeri Kabani (bantamweight in para taekwondo) missing out on Olympic qualification at the semifinal stage.
Taekwondo, which is a Korean martial art featuring high speed, sweeping kicks and quick punches, was first included in the Olympic programme as a demonstration sport in 1988 and again in 1992 before becoming a medal sport at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia.
On the experience of qualifying for her first Olympic Games, Ogallo reckoned: “It’s God’s favour on me and it reminded me of Coach Otieno’s quote ‘Believe, begin, become what you want to see’. And ‘never cross the bridge before you reach it’.
“I felt humble and proud of our God, nation, national federation, the Talent Academy, Kibabii University, my teammates and all the coaches who contributed to my success.”
Obviously, that excitement was somewhat tempered by the news that the Olympic Games were being postponed by a year owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, but Ogallo is determined to remain positive.
“It was an anticlimax, but I always believe that God’s time is the best and everything happens for a reason. The postponement also affected my plans of fully going back to my academic programme in August after the Games, as now I have to continue with my training schedule.”
For now though, training has been disrupted because of Kenya’s nationwide coronavirus lockdown, even though the restrictions were eased towards the end of July.
“It has greatly affected me because now I cannot train with my team members and there is no direct technical assistance from my coaches and trainers,” said Ogallo.
Despite the delay, Olympic glory is still very much the focus, and Ogallo pointed out the main factors motivating her to train two to three times a day for several gruelling hours. “My coach, teammates, and my progress in the sport and the fact that I inherited the legacy of Kibabii University in taekwondo – and a gold medal at the Olympics, which will be a dream come true, and also the desire to win the [WTA World Taekwondo] Grand Prix.
“Apart from eyeing the Olympic and Grand Prix gold medal, I would like to complete my studies and use that to develop taekwondo and other sports in Kenya. With God’s favour upon me, I have faith and believe I will attain a gold medal.”
Only one African athlete has achieved a gold medal in taekwondo in Olympic history and that was the Ivory Coast’s Cheick Sallah Cissé in the men’s 80kg category four years ago in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Ogallo will be Kenya’s first taekwondo representative at the Olympic Games since Dickson Wamwiri and Mildred Alango in Beijing in 2008, and she likes the sound of that, although it does come with a heavy sense of responsibility.
“It sounds pretty cool,” she muses. “It is for the glory of God and the entire nation and I cannot take it for granted.”