“My calling in athletics is bigger than winning multiple medals,” Marie-Josee Ta Lou tells BBC Sport Africa, reflecting on a season she calls “great for me”.
There is a feeling that the fastest woman in Africa has given everything but fallen short of complete success during her decade-long love for the track.
The Ivorian star’s accomplishments transcend the continent. To put things into perspective, if the fastest female 100m athletes of all time were lined up in a race today, Ta Lou would automatically have a lane.
She achieved an African record time of 10.72 seconds during the 2022 Monaco Diamond League, making her the sixth-fastest woman of all time. However, this achievement alone has not been enough to push her to the highest level of the sport, where victories at the World Athletics Championships and Olympic Games carry greater weight.
Ta Lou has just ended another athletics season in which she came agonisingly close to a podium finish at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest in August.
“It really hurts and I still can’t say I am over it,” says Ta Lou.
“I wanted to get a medal but finished fourth. I have been in a situation where I have been crying alone in my room.
“The support I received from fans across the world and my fellow competitors has been my saving grace.”
‘I can help people overcome the fear of failing’
Ta Lou is not new to being the athlete who almost makes it against the dominant Americans and Jamaicans.
The 2017 World Championships remain her most successful season, winning silver in the tightly-contested 200m and the 100m, when she narrowly lost her grip on gold on the line to America’s Tori Bowie.
She has competed in four Olympic finals, finishing fourth in three and fifth in one. But it’s her fourth-placed finish in Budapest that sent Ta Lou’s head spinning.
“When I participated in the 2016 Rio Games, which were my first Olympics, I had hoped to make it to the final, and so finishing in fourth place was a great experience,” she says.
“Unfortunately, the 2020 Olympic Games turned out to be a disaster that I would rather forget. But out of all the disappointments, this year’s loss hurts the most. I had felt completely prepared mentally, physically, and emotionally, and everything was within my control. But despite my best efforts, it just didn’t happen.
“I was so crushed and even considered ending my season in Budapest. But my strong faith in God is what strengthened me to show up for a double shot at the Diamond League finals in Eugene.”
Understandably, Ta Lou’s hopes were at an all-time high going into Budapest following a sizzling 2023 season.
She was unbeaten in 10 consecutive races, including Diamond League wins in Florence, Oslo, Lausanne, and London.
At the Oslo Diamond League, she set a meeting record of 10.75 seconds, breaking a time that had stood for 37 years. She matched that time when she won at the London Diamond League, eclipsing yet another meeting record and beating Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson on both occasions.
The previous London meet record of 10.77 seconds had been set by Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce a decade earlier.
Ta Lou reached the World Championships as the third-fastest entrant of the season behind American Sha’Carri Richardson and Jackson. That put her among the favourites for gold, with a podium the very least expected.
“Sometimes I feel like my calling is different and way bigger than always being on the podium,” she says.
“It’s about the hope I give to people to keep trying and about the legacy that I want to leave behind. I know there are people beyond athletics who see themselves through me in their daily struggles.
“I want people to see my battles and draw inspiration to keep pushing on and follow their dreams, Trying and getting desired results can take a toll on our human nature. I hope I can be a real reflection of that never-give-up spirit.
“It’s not always about being a fierce competitor. I love winning but if my fourth place can help people overcome the fear of failing over and over again, then it’s better than a medal around my neck. Maybe it’s the medal that God wants to give me.
“Winning is not about crossing the line first – it’s about the impact you have on people’s lives.”
Inspiring a continent
Gratitude is Ta Lou’s guardian angel because she knows all too well that she is not immune to falling into hopelessness.
Rather than dwelling on missing out on the top three despite performing exceptionally well all season, she concentrates on the positives.
“I have run injury-free for the first time,” she says. “That newly-found freedom has liberated me, both mentally and physically.
“I am incredibly grateful for the changes I’ve seen in my body since switching coaches and training locations.”
Ta Lou says her late former coach, Anthony Koffi, was “like a father to me” but describes moving her training base to the US and working with current coach John Smith as”the best career decision I’ve ever made.”
Her gratitude cup is forever on overflow. “I’ve experienced a range of emotions and endured significant pain, but those experiences have helped shape me into the person I am today,” she says.
“Despite any challenges I face, I always try to find the good and remain grateful.”
With such a positive outlook in the face of unaccomplished goals, how does this footballer-turned-athlete find a way to keep going for glory?
Is the notion of giving up even a part of her career vocabulary?
“My strength comes from God,” says Ta Lou.
“Sports psychologists have been crucial in helping most athletes cope with difficult times but I am different because when things don’t go well, I like to be quiet, meditate and pray. That’s where I draw my vigour.”
There have been tough days when Ta Lou has questioned her place in the sport. She has said she is giving up more than once in her career.
“I have gotten to a place where I didn’t feel like I could keep going on but it’s just a moment before I get back to the basics,” she says.
“I have a lot of elements that ground me. First, I got into athletics to show my mum that I could be good at sport.
“She wanted me to go to school and live like the normal girl she had envisioned. I chose my path and eventually managed to make her happy. I am not going to give up her happiness.
“Secondly, I come from a continent that has complex challenges, and seeing that I am a source of light has constantly motivated me to represent Africa and do it well, mostly because I know there are so many girls who have the talent and ability to be better than me.
“I want to inspire African girls to follow their wildest dreams and fight for their space.”
Paris 2024: Does the podium beckon?
Speaking of representing the continent, Ta Lou has consistently made sure Africa has a lane in the final of the 100m race at every global championship for the past decade.
But even with all that motivation, some days are tougher than others.
“After the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, I had made up my mind and informed my management and those close to me about my decision to quit,” she says.
“But they wouldn’t let me. I experienced so much support from all angles. Words of affirmation from my fiance meant the world to me through that tough season.”
She is also very close to three-time Olympic and 10-time world champion Fraser-Pryce.
“My sister, Shelly, won’t let me give up on running,” Ta Lou says of the 36-year-old Jamaican.
“She is constantly reminding me that she is older than me and she is still going strong.
“Her words are loud in my head every single day and she never gets exhausted of motivating me to wake every morning and do what I like.
“Shelly-Ann is one of the many reasons you will see me in Paris for what could be my last Olympic Games.”
Ta Lou’s cheeky laugh is followed by a quick disclaimer.
“Right now, I can say Paris 2024 is my last and then two years from now I’ll say, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m still here and I am giving the Olympics another chance.’
“All I am telling God as we head to Paris is ‘not another fourth, please.'”
Source : BBC