National 400m champion, Bendere Oboya, is one of 15 athletics superstars who were selected to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Team last weekend, with the Ethiopian-born sprinter claiming gold at the National Athletics Championship on her 21st birthday.
The one to beat, Oboya had won 26 out of her last 27 domestic races and claimed the national title in a time of 52.20.
The Pendle Hill, NSW, local posted a Tokyo qualifying time and current PB of 51.21 back at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, so finally securing her ticket to Tokyo 2020 after an almost two-year wait, was the icing on the cake.
“Finding out I’m going to Tokyo on my birthday, has been amazing,” she said after receiving her Qantas boarding pass.
“When I won my race, it didn’t really sink in because there was so much going on, but then I got home, sat down and realised, I’m going to the Olympics, this is what young me has been working for.”
With Australians champing at the bit for a new Olympic Champion to unite the nation, Oboya has drawn a lot of comparisons to the legendary Cathy Freeman who famously won 400 m gold at Sydney 2000, in one of the most renowned Olympic tales of our time.
She says that although she admires Freeman for her athletic ability and all that she stood for, the 21-year-old is keen to carve her own unique path and be seen for who she is.
“When I compete on the Olympic stage and the world sees me, I want them to see me as the girl who came out of nowhere and made a name for herself, just by being herself… Not the next Cathy Freeman – even though she’s lovely, but the first Bendere Oboya.”
Oboya’s competitive track and field journey began only six years ago, which is hard to believe for such a world-class athlete.
Her parents Opamo and Akech left the conflict of Ethiopia with Bendere and her four siblings in the early 2000s.
The family sought refuge in countries such as Kenya, before settling in Australia in 2003, when she was three years old.
Growing up in Sydney’s west, the youngest of four brothers and one sister, Oboya started participating in Little Athletics in 2012, firstly through Blacktown, then Girraween and finally, Prospect.
Quiet, reserved and uninterested in academic pursuits, a young Oboya found it difficult to settle in and make friends during her childhood years, but when she found athletics, she found herself.
“I was a shy girl growing up, I wasn’t very good at school… I didn’t think I was good at anything,” she shared.
“Then, I found athletics which was something I became quite good at. My passion for running then came from wanting to be the best and seeing how far I could go.”
After four years in Little Athletics and with a 400m PB of 75 seconds, Oboya decided to fully commit to the 400m discipline and started regular coaching and training.
In September of 2016, she broke 59 seconds for the first time at the Combined High School Athletics Carnival. Over the next few months, she kept chipping away at her PB; 57 seconds, 55.67, 55.01, 54.14 and 53.30.
At the National Junior Championships in March 2017, she ran a time of 53.02, securing herself a spot at the Commonwealth Youth Games which she won in a time of 52.29, all while completing her high school certificate.
Her latest PB saw her ranked third in the world in the under-18 category and she closed out that year ranked as number two in the world, behind American Arria Minor.
Oboya then contested the 2018 Australian Championships in Carrara, finishing in a time of 51.94, just behind Rio 2016 Olympic 400m finalist, Anneliese Rubie, an incredible feat for the then 17-year-old which gained her qualification for the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
Oboya says that the moment she started competing in track and field, she knew it was what she was destined for.
“You know when you have a feeling that something is meant for you? That’s what track is like for me,” she explained. “It’s like, when you already know that you can be that person [an elite athlete].
“It’s something I felt in my heart and something that I could already visualise myself as,” she explained.
“I was calling myself an athlete before I was even on the track training, so I guess I really just manifested who I wanted to be. Then, she showed up, and six years later, here I am.”
But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Oboya on her journey to becoming one of Australia’s best sprinters. In 2019 she struggled with her mental health and almost gave up on athletics and her Olympic dream altogether.
The rising champion went from living out her dreams, to dreading each and every training session saying, “I hated it, I hated going.”
It wasn’t until a change of location, coaching and perspective that her love of track was reignited.
“When I went through that rough stage in 2019, I only got through it after learning that I had to prioritise myself,” she said.
“I put myself in a positive environment, I fell in love with myself – self-love is really important.
“I also found a coach who takes care of you, and when I say ‘you,’ I don’t just mean as an athlete, John (Quinn) helps you with everything outside of athletics, he’s simply a coach who cares.”
Bendere’s parent’s 10,000 km journey to provide their children with the best possible opportunities, has paid off ten-fold and they couldn’t be more thrilled.
“When I’m in my room after a race, I’ll keep hearing ‘Bendere Oboya’ and it’s my parents re-watching videos of my race, so I can tell that they’re really proud,” she laughed.
“Every African parent wants their kids to go to school, so they’ve definitely been extra supportive in letting me focus on athletics.
“I remember one time saying to them, “I need a job,” because I wasn’t sponsored and my mum said to me, ‘“Athletics is your job’,” so everything I am now, my parents have helped me to become.”
Australia is home for Bendere, but being able to represent her heritage on the world stage is just as important because you can’t be what you can’t see.
“It means a lot to represent my Ethiopian and Australian heritage,” she said.
“As I grew up as an athlete, I didn’t see girls with the same skin colour as me, or the same hair type as me, so the fact that I can now be an example for little girls like me and also little girls who don’t look like me, is really special.”
Originally published for olympics.com.au