Athletics does not come anywhere near the most popular sports in Rwanda, be it in terms of fan base or performance. But, the sport is admired for something different: creating champions from some of the most of humble beginnings.
And such is the case for Marthe Yankurije.
The APR athletics star has defied the odds on her way up to become one of the country’s finest female runners – and arguably the best on local scene today – after dropping out of school in 2012 while in her fourth year of second school where she pursued the combination of Mathematics-Chemistry-Biology (MCB) at ES Nkumbu in Nyamasheke District.
From humble beginnings in Nyamasheke, and, with five brothers and a sister, being single-handedly raised by her mother, Espérance Mukagasana, everything Yankurije has achieved is down to a great deal of hard work and dream to become a professional athlete.
Just last month, the 25-year old was one of the only two runners who represented Rwanda at the 12th All-Africa Games in Morocco, along with Noel Hitimana. The two competed in 10,000 metres category.
Prior to venturing into athletics, and during her early days in the sport, Yankurije used play football and handball for her school teams, until she met Donatien Ndagijimana in 2011, the school trainer who advised her to ‘focus on athletics and drop the rest of sports’.
Yankurije recalls how she finished second in her first outing for the school (ES Nkumbu) in national inter-schools championships, in women’s 10-kilometre category.
“My first performance in athletics made me realize how I had wasted time in football and handball,” she told Saturday Sport this week. “The silver medal for me was a sign that I would achieve a lot in athletics if I gave it time and work hard.”
When she dropped out of school, about a year after her first athletics competition, Yankurije was enticed by Felicien Muhitira – an established athlete and longtime friend – to join Nyamasheke Athletics Club, and she would feature for her home district’s team till moving to APR in 2016.
“Muhitira helped me a lot in my earlier days. He offered me equipment and moral support, which was pivotal in getting me to quickly understand athletics and adapt at my (then) new club.”
Born in July 1994, the sensational middle and long distance runner’s first international competition was the 2014 African Cross Country Championships, held in Uganda, where she finished in 35th position in over 100 athletes.
After months of hard work in training, Yankurije made her official debut with Nyamasheke athletics club during the 2014 Kigali Half-Marathon as she outshone a strong field of experienced rivals to finish fifth.
“I was rewarded Rwf80,000, an amount of money I had never touched before,” she vividly recalls.
And, as if the Kigali half-marathon performance was not stunning enough, Yankurije within weeks shocked the country – against all the odds – to win the national cross country championships.
The following year, she made her debut in the annual Kigali International Peace Marathon, and put up yet another impressive showing to finish seventh in women’s half-marathon.
Her talent has also taken her to countries she only dreamed of in childhood such as Japan where she spent three weeks of intensive preparations prior to competing at this year’s All-Africa Games in Morocco last month.
Move to APR, and life after
After three years with Nyamasheke athletics, Yankurije was lured and signed by APR as the club geared up for the 2016 East Africa Military Games in Kigali. However, the athlete only managed a 15th place finish in 10,000m women’s contest.
Among other memorable performances since joining APR, she struck bronze during the 2017 Run Blue Half Marathon and finished fourth in Kigali International Peace Marathon’s half-marathon the same year.
Last year, also in the Kigali Peace Marathon, she claimed bronze in women’s half-marathon before stepping up to strike silver this year.
Yankurije is also a two-time reigning champion – and three-time winner – of the national cross country championships after winning back-to-back the 2018 and 2019 titles.
The former Nyamasheke Athletics Club star is optimistic to run her way into qualification for next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Her friend, Muhitira, is so far the sole Rwandan – in all disciplines – with a ticket to Tokyo 2020 Games after earning his minima in men’s full marathon from Italy in April this year.
“Olympics are a very important event for every athlete in the world. Hopefully I will get a chance to qualify and represent my country at the 2020 Games."
"It would be a dream come true.”