Athletics is among the flourishing sports in Rwanda. Over the last decade, the sport has produced some elite runners like Disi Dieudonne, Claudette Mukasakindi and Epiphanie Nyirabarame whose star is shining.
Nyirabarame, a two-time Olympiad specialises in marathon and long-distance running. She represented Rwanda at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and Beijing in 2008 but failed to qualify for London 2012.
In Athens, she finished in the 54th position with a time of 2:52:50 and in Beijing, she finished the women’s marathon with a time of 2:49:32. The 32-year-old achieved her personal best at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin, Germany, when she completed the women’s marathon in 26th position with a time of 2:33:59.
In addition to her personal best, Nyirabarame also broke the national record previously held by Marcianna Mukamurenzi in the 1990s. Nyirabarame was born on December 15, 1981 in Gisagara district (formerly Runyinya) in the Southern Province to Pascal Nahayo (RIP) and Domithilia Kazindutsi. She got married on November 11, 2013 to Egide Munyaneza.
Her father, who passed away in 2012, had three wives and 26 children. Two of the three wives and ten children also passed away.
Nyirabarame attended Irasaniro primary school from grade one to three and relocated to Runyinya primary school where she sat for her primary leaving examinations. Unfortunately, she was not able to continue with her education. Instead she decided to hustle for a living to take care of her younger siblings.
“After finishing primary school in 1995, I was barely 14-years old but I had to quit school and look for survival means for myself and my family,” she told Saturday Sport.
At school she never played any sport because she used to suffer from serious stomach upsets. It was until she turned 14, that she picked interest in doing sports for fun.
Before settling for running, Nyirabarame used to play football until 1998. She used to feature for former Nyarugenge district-sponsored Urumuri FC that withdrew from the women’s league early this year.
In 1996, Nyirabarame competed in her first ever serious athletics competition dubbed ‘Stop HIV/SIDA’ which she won. In that competition she represented Kamonyi district (formerly Runda) and since then, as they say, the rest is history.
In 1997, the former Runyinya primary school pupil won the ‘Sprite athletics tournament’ and earned the ticket to the 1998 junior IAAF World cross country championships held in Morocco where she finished 79th.
She also represented Rwanda at the 1998 IAAF junior World championships in Annecy, France but did not perform well.
Between 1999 and 2000, Nyirabarame dominated almost every competition organised by the Rwanda Athletics Federation (Raf) including the national half-marathon and national cross country.
In 2001, the then 22-year-old Nyirabarame moved from junior to senior competitions and her first was the 4th edition of Francophone Games held in Canada where she finished fourth in the women’s half marathon. She also won a number of local titles the same year.
In 2002, she was part of Rwanda’s team that competed at the 13th edition of African Championships held in Tunis and Rades, Tunisia.
It was in 2003 that Nyirabarame shifted from running half marathon to full-marathon. Previously, she had been running 3000, 5000 and 10000 metres respectively.
That year (2003), she was invited at the Rome Marathon and finished sixth and since then she has always been competing at the annual Rome Marathon and never finished out of the top 20.
In 2004, she finished 9th at the Rome Marathon to earn qualification for the 2004 summer Olympics held in Athens, Greece where she finished in the 54th
position clocking 2:52:50.
She also competed at the 29th edition of summer Olympics held in Beijing, China in 2008 to finish 66th clocking 2:49:32.
In 2005, she won almost every title locally. She also appeared in the fifth Francophone games staged in Niamey, Niger to finish as a bronze medalist and competed at the 10th IAAF World championships hosted in Helsinki, Finland and Rome Marathon as well.
In 2006, she went to Italy for Rome Marathon again and finished 7th and 11th in 2007.
In 2009, Nyirabarame achieved her personal best at the 12th IAAF World championships held in Berlin, Germany using a time of 2:33:59. In addition to her personal best, she also set her national record which was previously held by Mukamurenzi.
She also won gold at the Francophone Games held in Beirut, Lebanon.
“2009 was the most successful year in my career. Besides registering my personal best, I also won Gold at the Francophone Games and won other locally organised competitions,” she says with a smile.
In 2010, she travelled to Italy for three months and featured in Rome Marathon and other Italian athletics tournaments held in different parts of the country. She also ran at the 19th Commonwealth Games held in Delhi, India and finished 12th.
However, after years of almost unrivalled dominance, fatigue and age started to take toll on Rwanda’s best known female athlete.
In 2011, 2012 and 2013, she won nothing on the local scene as her younger rival Claudette Mukasakindi took over. Early this year, Nyirabarame, who was fresh from her wedding to her long-time fiancé Munyaneza, competed at this year’s ‘Ascension Mont Cameroon’ and finished 22nd.
Nyirabarame has always been featuring in the annual Kigali International Peace marathon since its first edition in 2005 and plans to appear in the tenth edition scheduled for next month.
Throughout her career, Nyirabarame has featured for two clubs, New Athletics Stars (NAS) from 1998-2003 and APR from 2003 todate.
Nyirabarame was featured in the American documentary film dubbed ‘Spirit of the Marathon II’, featuring her performance in the 2012 Rome Marathon.
“I managed to build a house for my mother and young siblings in Nyaruguru district where they stay and one for myself in Kicukiro where I live with my husband,” she reveals.
Having dropped out of schools at an early age due to lack of means, Nyirabarame says, “Another thing that really makes me proud is the fact that I have managed to pay school fees for my young brothers and sisters.”
The athlete, who will turn 33 in December and plans to retire after the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro thanks former NAS coach Emmanuel Murenzi and Raf president Jean Damascene Nkezingabo, current coach at APR Innocent Rwabuhihi as well as former national athlete Mathias Ntayirikura for helping her from the start.
“At the moment, I’m focused on ending my career on a high. I have to keep training hard and if all goes well and I qualify, I want to retire after the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil” she confirmed.