We’ve met a thoroughbred champion. Noelie Yarigo is a Beninese athlete who conquered our hearts in a few seconds by her talent and her strong determination. Noelie started racing at 8 years old in Materi, her birth village. She has not stopped ever since. She furiously want to win. At the risk of flying off, she tirelessly run, while winning on her way, some medals as well as the pride of a whole nation. She is a champion. She is a star. She is a IRAWO. You will not safely get out of this interview…
Were you born racing? When did it start?
[Laughs] My taste of running comes from my mother. Every time she sent me buy stuff, she would say: “if you come back quickly, you will have a gift”. And since I loved cow milk, she would buy me some as a reward. It was our deal. And I liked it. And I used to win every single inter-school championship.
When did you start to see “racing” as a real deal?
I went to Parakou. That’s where I discovered a 800m female runner who asked me to join the club “les guépards” for training. But my mother didn’t want me to do athleticism because people came to see her, saying I looked like a dude, that I wouldn’t be able to give her any grandchild. She never went to school, thus she was panicked. Me, I would to hide to train. I did it for years. She eventually had enough. She told herself it was better to support me, since it was what I like.
What destined you to 800m?
I hat physical aptitude which allowed me to restlessly train. Even if back then, it wasn’t very serious because I used to train alone, twice a week, due to scholar schedule. I used to train on sports fields : I would run around them. I didn’t know how to train alone. In 2002, I took the 800m Benin champion title. In 2004, I became the U-20 west africa champion. Each year, I used to win the solidarity tournament. I met my current coach the 18th Africa championship in Porto Novo. At the the beginning, I was a 400m runner. He found out that I was more resistant. I wasn’t fast but I was able to run for a long time.
Athleticism is not the quite popular sport in Benin, still you relentlessly went in for it. What motivated you that much?
The desire to win.I want to become a great champion. Click To Tweet
When I saw Kenyans, Ethiopians, and Americans run, I would see myself at their place. I would say to myself : why not Bénin?
You are corporal of Benin Air Force. Does your patriotism come from your military training?
When I was transferred to Air Forces, they allowed me to continue my training. They saw I had potential and that I was really motivated. They even used to drive me to “Stade de l’amité” stadium in our large military truck for trainings. Everybody would look at me with big eyes. I used to be ashamed but I had no right to refuse. [laughs]
One have to run fast enough to fly. You took off at African Championship, in 2012.
My participation motivated me to continue. When Claude Guillaume asked to train me, I told myself : why not? He did the formalities for the army to hand me over to the ministry of sports. I went to France April 1st, 2013. I suffered a lot the first year. Only two weeks after my arrival, I already wanted to go home. The temperature difference, the loneliness, the change of rhythm. I almost froze to death. I use to think about my mother every time. And it is not like in Africa where there is always someone who cares. Everyone is busy. So, you have to be on your own in your corner. I would train every day: morning and evening. I wasn’t used to such a rhythm. I started questioning myself. Could I hang on? There were times when after training, I couldn’t neither eat, nor sleep. Before going to France, I was used to winning all the time. I would think nobody could beat me. I had to go in adventure to understand that my performance was only warm-up for others.
How did you feel when you realized that the podium was some good meters away from you?
My coach warned me. He told me I did not come as a tourist. I was shocked. I wondered how he could say that to me. I know where I come from and I know my gaols. He also added that he was no magician and that to succeed one had to work. I’ve failed a lot. Every competition I used to take part in, I would be the last. Every failure was an experience that I have been able to leverage to be successful today.
What happened afterwards?
The second year of my stay in France (2014), I enhanced my chrono from 2” minutes 06 to 2 minutes 00. At first, I occupied the third place in the French championship. The next year, I won the title. The IIAF sets the minima performances you must reach to be invited to great competitions. My goal was to achieve those minima and be at ease to train better. I didn’t want to be invited Thanks to affinities.
When you are motivated by the desire to win, but you sustain so many failures, what allow you not to sink? Does it not lower self-confidence?
I was very determinate. And my coach used to be behing me every time. My mother too. I have learned a lot from my failures. I have forged my mind. One have to know failures to better taste victory. If you’ve never failed in your life, you cannot savor victory like someone who struggled to win. At Rio (August 2016), when I saw my 1 minute 59 seconds chrono, I felt like in a movie. I fell. I cried. People even thought I was injured.
How did you prepared the olympics?
I have achieved the minima. But 3 months from the games beginning I got sick during the event I hold in Benin every year: “Les foulées de la Pendjari” Pendjari strides. I had been bitten by mosquitoes. Back to France, I suffered from a big crisis of malaria. I even fainted during a race. They reanimated me for 30 minutes. I spent several weeks in hospital. I prepared for olympics for 4 years. I had to go. I have had to train thrice more sometimes to get back to my top level.
What is the best and the worst thing that you learned from Rio?
Rio strengthend my desire to continue. I was very happy of my performance. This great competition allowed me to reach the 13th rank worldwide.Olympics taught me that a Beninese can do great Click To Tweet
We can make our country great through athleticism. Through other areas too, if we work on it. I used to listen to my body too much. I could tell myself during a training session: “I am tired”. Though, the body has memory. When u say that, all you body believe it. I have learned to not listen to my body. That’s how I manage to progress in Rio. I was in a make it-or-break it mood. After my semi-final, a kenyan authority said to me : “You, we have to deny you the visa. You are breaking the myth by beating our girls. It’s not normal”. [Laughs]
Why do they say that Noélie Yarigo is the only Beninese athlete?
Because since the first participation of Benin in Olympics, i am the first athlete of my actual level. I’m in the worldwide top 20. There have never been an athlete who achieved the minima at first, and reached that level.
And after the Olympics?
After the olympics, I took part in a 1000 m competition that I won enhancing my chrono from 2’44” to 2’43”04. I beat the 1000m Benin record. I was the 10th anniversary of Joué-Lès-Tours.
What are your values?
When I want something, I do whatever I can to get it. I like to share my experience with other people. And I love pounded yam [laughs]
Someone said it’s hard to be a Beninese female athlete with people’s look, this so-called obligation to get married and behave according to predefined and often fallacious values. Won’t your carrier crack under the pressure?
When you are a women and you practice an intensive sport which mis-shapes you, people talk and strangely look at you. It’s like your an alien. Some girls doesn’t stand it but it does not bother me.This body, it's me, it's Noelie. I do a lot of body-building. Click To Tweet
Without that I cannot progress. I don’t care about people’s look, I don’t care about what they say. Everything else can wait. You must know how to separate thing. There is a time for activities and a time for kids. I treasure my goals and I will go through.
What inspires you when you hit the bottom?
Music. I like “Au bout de mes rêves” by Booba very much. Musik is like a drug to me. Even though i’m convinced that one can succeed without doping. For proof, I realized my performance without doping. Since my 2 minutes 00 chrono, they have sometimes come in the middle on the night for anti doping control. I was obliged to give my location, not to sleep out.
What’s your opinion on doping? Do athletes dope themselves very much?
Some do. It’s a pity cause it ricochet on us who train really hard. If we can achieve our performance with no doping, why can’t they do the same? One can succeed without doping.When you think about doping, you are already thinking of yourself as a weakling. Click To Tweet
I think when you feel like you have already reached your limits, you have to stop and move on.
Do you feel like you are reaching your limit? And what are the obstacles you have met on your way to fulfill your dream?
I still have plenty of energy. The day I will feel like I have reached my limits, I will stop. Things will be difficult but not impossible. Back to 2012, my coach would tell me I could achieve the minima, and people would laugh at him. My strength is my mind. Many people tried to discourage me: “quit sport, there is nothing in it”. I would say no, we don’t have the same chances.
I want to achieve. I have to achieve. I don’t necessarily need to be supported. I will struggle with my weapons and I will make it through. There have been times when I went short of support. A high level training demands a big budget, a medical follow up, a balanced diet. It’s hard to control all of it. There are people who finish training and go eat cassava floor. How will they recover their lost energy? Plus we have no material, no weights rooms, no infrastructures, no good conditions to prepare for competitions. We have to do with what we got.
Did the government showed you any support since the olympics?
I was received by the the minister of sports. He told me he has an award for me and is waiting for the right moment to give it to me. But i’m waiting to see.
With “Les foulées de la Pendjari”, you are searching talents in athleticism…
I’m moving on youngsters detection. I will not race all my life. Each year, I detect new ones. I want to set up a system with the city hall of Materi to put all these young talents in the same school, where they could be trained by qualified sport coaches. I’am also willing to create a library in Materi: they don’t have any.
How does one earn a living in athleticism?
It depends on your level, the contracts you have, the competitions you win. But it’s impossible to have a side job and be a professional athlete a the same time. I’ll make it some day. The little you earn, use it to train for the jackpot.
What advice would you give to a 8 year old girl who want to run like Noélie Yarigo?
She has to work hard and be patient. It takes several steps to become a champion. There is no magic.
Irawo est le média des talents africains. Notre mission est d’inspirer les jeunes Africains à débloquer leurs talents et à réaliser leurs rêves.