22-year-old running sensation Baboloki Tirelo Thebe’s rise to the top is a truly remarkable story.
At the age of 16, Thebe was the star of his school football team and dedicated all his spare time to kicking a ball about on the dusty fields of Nthwalang Junior School.
At the advice of his sport’s master, he decided to give athletics ago.
The Ramonaka-native has not looked back since, quickly establishing himself as one of the best 400m runners in the world.
Indeed, just five years after taking up the sport, Thebe won a silver medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, coming second to countryman Isaac Makwala in Australia.
He is also a two-time African Champion.
Earlier this year, ‘G-Man’ received the local recognition his international exploits deserve, racing away with three Botswana National Sports Commission (BNSC) awards, including Sports Person and Male Person of the Year.
Currently based in Spain, fine-tuning his preparations for the IAAF World Championships in September, Thebe took time out of his training for a quick chat with The Voice’s Portia Mlilo.
Q. Why did you join athletics?
A. Well I was a football player but our Sports Master, Rra Nkane at Nthwalang CJSS in Digawana saw potential in me and persuaded me to join athletics.
Football was my first passion and favourite sport; I had not even considered joining athletics!
Mr Nkane was impressed by my speed and it was a great loss for football (laughing).
I think mine was just a natural talent since I did not go through development structures.
That year (2013) I won bronze in the 200m and silver in 4x400m relay in the Botswana Integrated Schools Association (BISA) games!
Q. An impressive start to your career! You recently won three BNSC awards, what does it mean to you?
A. I am humbled. It shows people and sports administrators are recognising my hard work.
Other athletes who were nominees in all the three categories have rich profiles so it means last season I did my best.
I was once a nominee at these awards and I knew my time would come.
This is an extra motivation and it will make me work even harder.
Q. What are some of the highlights of your career?
A. Winning the Commonwealth silver medal and successfully defending my African title in Asaba, Nigeria – that was the greatest achievement!
Now I am targeting a World Championships title.
Q. And what would you say are some of the disappointments you have experienced on the track?
A. The day I was disqualified for the lane infringement at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Poland.
It was painful.
I wanted to be strong and treat it as a lesson but it was tough.
I then consoled myself that I would redeem myself at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
But I didn’t due to an injury.
I wanted to win the Diamond League trophy and that season I was leading the Diamond League log standings in 400m but I couldn’t compete (in the final) because of the injury I sustained at the World Championships.
It was frustrating!
Q. Your Diamond League season got off to a shaky start this year with a last place finish in Stockholm, Sweden. What went wrong, were you injured?
A. Honestly I was not injured, my body just didn’t respond.
I tried to kick but my body felt otherwise.
I think it was due to bad weather.
It is very difficult to train when it is winter, that is why Botswana National Olympic Committee take us to train in high performance centers overseas when it is cold at home.
Q. Are you worried about your slow start to the season?
A. Not really. I just have to train very hard, sleep and eat the correct diet and I will bounce back.
I am a strong believer.
Q. Some people have voiced concern that you are finished and will never realize the potential you displayed as a teenager?
A. Finished? That’s strange, ke santse ke le montsi (I still have a long way to go) and age is still on my side.
If I can remain injury free, I will keep on running and running, that’s the only thing that I know.
It is my career! It’s dangerous to judge an athlete with two or three races.
You know, in athletics there are ups and downs, but it doesn’t make one a bad athlete, does it?
Q. No it doesn’t! So, what does it take to be a great athlete?
A. Discipline, train very hard, stay focused and follow the coaches programme. That’s the rule of thumb.
Q. You are currently training in Spain. How are you finding it?
A. The weather is good and they have good training facilities, so I can’t complain.
For an athlete to train properly the weather has to be warm.
As you might be aware, this time of year in Europe it’s lovely and warm.
Q. You haven’t qualified for the Olympics yet. Are you feeling the pressure?
A. I am not under any pressure.
I am confident that any time I can clock 44.90 (the required qualifying time) so I just have to be patient.
It shall happen, when I don’t know but what I know is that I will be at Tokyo.
Q. How would you rate your preparations for the World Championships in Doha? What should fans expect from you?
A. Honestly I am doing enough, my body shape is okay this time.
My fans should keep supporting me because with their support anything is possible!
Q. How do you feel about the administration blunder that led to the 4x400m relay team missing out on the World Relays back in May?
A. What is done is done, we can’t cry over spilt milk.
But I think it’s a lesson learnt, next time things will be done better.
Q. Did it affect your preparations for major games?
A. Actually it didn’t, I am here in Spain and I am not affected.
We will have to work extra hard for our relay team to qualify for the World Champs.
Most of the teams have qualified, therefore should we find races we have to run better times than them.
Q. What are your expectations of the new administration at Botswana Athletics Association (BAA)?
A. My duty is to run, eat and sleep.
When it comes to administration, it is not my area.
I should focus on the track.
I don’t want to talk about administration issues but I hope the current regime will give us the necessary support so that we are able to compete with the world and represent the country with pride.
Q. Professional athletes often fall foul of the trappings of fame, with some ending up as womanisers and drunkards, cutting their careers short. How do you ensure you will avoid this?
A. I have men and women who are supporting me.
They make sure I am always in the right lane.
They talk to me now and then and they always tell me to take things easy.
I will not allow fame to get into my head and ruin my career.
Q. Who is your inspiration?
A. My family and God.
I am what I am today because of family support and believing in God.
In athletics, 800m Olympic silver medalist, Nijel Amos is my inspiration.
Amos is my mentor and he always advises me to believe in myself and stay focused.
Q. When you eventually hang-up your running boots – hopefully not for many years yet – what do you hope to do?
A. I want to be a farmer, one day.
I also want to give back to the country by working with athletics body in athletes’ development just to appreciate the government and private sector’s input in my career.
Q. Thank God it’s Friday, what are your plans for the weekend?
A. No plans. I will be on the track, training.
It is very hectic here and I want to focus on robust training so that I can qualify for the coming major games.