A conversation with gold medalist Yolanda Ngarambe

Yolanda Ngarambe addresses youth during the 2019 YouthConnekt Summit in Kigali. / File

Since childhood, Yolanda Ngarambe had a dream to become a professional runner but didn’t know where or how to start.

It was thanks to her coaches (a wife and husband team), whom she met in 2014, that trained her and provided a home for a couple of years – although she wasn’t earning any money.

Her common Rwandan name, ‘Ngarambe’, originates from her father who is of Rwandan origin, and as Ngarambe says, many of her family members also live in Rwanda. She has Swedish nationality, although her mother is Finnish.

Swedish runner Ngarambe now ranks 25th in Women’s 1500m worldwide according to World Athletics, and has also won, among others, the 3,000 metres at the 2019 European Team Championships in Poland.

In an interview with The Weekender’s Lavie Mutanganshuro, Ngarambe shared her career path – which turns out to be a good lesson to young aspirers, especially in the sports industry.

Who is Yolanda Ngarambe?

I am a person who loves running and always trying to live a happy life. I also love traveling and meeting people.

When and how did you start your running career?

I always dreamed of becoming an athlete since when I was in high school, but I didn’t know what I could do to achieve it. When I finished high school I got a scholarship to a University in the United States where I went for academics and running; here I had to choose my path, of what to do, if I wanted to become a lifetime athlete. It was in 2014 when I started my career, having met my coaches and we are still together.

What were some of your challenges?

My first, main, challenge was running without getting any money out of it. I was one of the rare people who was not making money while in their 20’s. So, making running a career was like taking a risk.

Another challenge was my injury in 2017. By then I couldn’t run, and when you lose something you’ve put all your cards in, you feel discouraged and worried about your future.

Still on your first challenge, how can one turn their talent into profit?

My first contract was $2000 per year, which was very little considering the cost of living in the US. However, this was a good sign that I can gain money from my career, and with time I started getting a good income.

Ngarambe at the Humana Rock N’ Roll Marathon series in Las Vegas, where she came in pole position in the female category and 8th runner out of over 7,000 competitors in 2018. / Courtesy

Therefore, if you want to turn your talent into profit, know that it comes little by little. The better you do, the more people become interested in working with you. But all in all, make sure you’re passion-driven and not driven by money.

What are your most memorable moments as an athlete so far?

I can say that there are more good memories than bad.

My favorite moments among others include this year’s competitions, like the World Athletics Championships in Doha, the European Team Championships in Poland and the World Athletics Diamond League.

All of these competitions seemed very challenging but they eventually leveled up my performance and rankings.

What has been your experience in Rwanda?

I think this is my fifth time in Rwanda. People here are nice, and the country is very green. Most of the times when I’m here, I enjoy going to Gisenyi, Rubavu district.

I feel energized being here. I also enjoyed the YouthConnekt Africa Summit (YCAS) 2019 as well as the Kigali Night Run, which shows how people here enjoy doing sports.

What’s your favorite Rwandan meal?

This is now my 10th year as a vegetarian. I eat most of African food like matoke, beans, chapatti, ugali,  sweet potatoes and vegetables.

Any recommended food for athletes?

For you to remain in shape as an athlete, you have to eat healthy food that have less sugar and fries. For instance, me, I take sugar on the weekends only.

You also have to avoid alcohol and make sure you eat often, especially immediately after trainings so that your body recovers the energy faster.

Your plans ahead?

I hope to run next year’s World Indoor Championships in China, as well as the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. I want to run all these big competitions and see how big I can be, because I enjoy competing.

Thanks to the 2019 YCAS, because after attending it, I now aspire (though I haven’t figured out how and when to start) to go to places where they need coaches to help young talent who want to run, but haven’t yet figured out how.

So I want to use my running skills and experience to help other people.  

Any advice for young talents?

If you love something and you want to be successful in that very thing: take risks, be disciplined and work hard.

Another thing is that good things don’t happen overnight, they take time. This means that you have to be patient and enjoy the journey.

This article was first published by The Weekender, an online lifestyle magazine of The New Times.

Read more on the Weekender.