Ageing Koju defying odds
Kathmandu, August 14
Kanchhi Maya Koju is an ageing athlete, who holds four national records to her name. Two of them came last year when she bagged seven gold medals in eight national and international events in the span of seven months.
At the age of 34, Koju is beating all odds and winning medals one after another. Even the coaches and fellow athletes are surprised with the way Koju has been adding accolades to her collection. She has won a total of 40 gold medals in national events and four in international arena. And the wonder girl of Nepali athletes, Koju has plans to run for at least two more years before giving a shot at retirement. Her next aim is to win medal in the 13th South Asian Games on home soil in March 2019.
Koju’s journey began at the age of 13 when she participated in an inter-school event from Basu Higher Secondary School. She not only won gold in the 1500m race of Bhaktapur Districtwide Running Competition but also impressed local coach Mohan Prasad Karmacharya in her first outing. And she never looked back.
“That was my first participation and I was a little bit nervous,” remembers Koju. “I went on to win gold medal and that became the turning point of my career. I even started neglecting my studies for sports but I am happy that paid off. In the early days, my parents were not happy with that but they also started encouraging me after I started winning medals,” she says. Somehow, Koju appeared in the SLC exams in 2002 but failed in mathematics and also could not clear the hurdle in compartment exam. “I had no interest in study as I was into extracurricular activities from early stage. I gave a try to clear the SLC exams but that did not happen and I quit studies,” she says.
Seeing potential in Koju, coach Karmacharya groomed the sixth grader and provided necessary training. “He is the first coach of my life. I could not have reached at this position if he was not there,” says Koju, who hails from Byasi-10 of Bhaktapur district. Koju then got the chance to participate in National Athletics Championships in Jhapa where she won bronze medals in 8000m and 5,000m races. She returned empty handed in 1,500m race.
Koju had already left her mark in national front and that earned her the chance to participate in two first international tournaments in 1997. Although she failed to live up to the expectations, Koju finished eighth in the 4km race in Junior Asian Cross Country Championships in Japan and stood seventh in the 4km race at the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in Bangkok.
At the age of 34, Koju is the most decorated woman athlete of the country. She holds national records in 5km (15 minutes and 49.58 seconds), 10km (35 minutes and 3.43 seconds), half marathon (one hour, 18 minutes and 26 seconds) and marathon (two hours, 55 minutes and 57 seconds). Koju had set the national record in 5km during the 16th Asian Games in China in 2010 and got the new mark in 10km during the 10th South Asian Games in Sri Lanka. The Colombo SA Games is the most memorable one for Koju as she created history by winning silver medal. “That was a moment cherished not only by me, the whole country celebrated the achievement as no Nepali woman athlete had ever won silver medal in the SAF Games,” remembers Koju.
She broke two national records last year — Pinkathon Half Marathon and Kathmandu Marathon. Koju was at her best in 2016 as the Nepal APF Club athlete won seven out of eight events in seven months — half marathon in Nepalgunj Peace Marathon, gold medals in 5,000m and 10,000m races in the seventh National Games, Kathmandu Marathon, Darjeeling Half Marathon and Kantipur Half Marathon.
“I took part in eight events in a year and that was the highest number of tournament I ran in my career. Apart from the titles, I received a good amount of cash prizes from the events,” says Koju.
Koju also won gold medals in Creemore Veitical Challenge in Canada and Malaysian Open Athletics Championship in 5km race and 10km races in 2014. Not getting an opportunity to take part in the 14th Asiad in Busan was a sad moment for her. “I was having my best timing in 5km race at that time and was planning to excel in South Korea. But the dreams were shattered when Nepal Athletics Association decided to send only men athletes to South Korea,” says Koju. “I got hapless as there was no quota for women athletes because of politics in sports. However, I regrouped myself and continued taking part in the domestic events,” she added.
Every player dreams of representing nation in Olympic Games and Koju became the Olympian in 2004 when she was selected for Athens Olympics in 2004. “Getting the opportunity to participate in Olympic Games was the happiest moment for me as like other players I also had a dream of reaching to the biggest platform of sports,” says Koju, who had participated in 1,500m race.
Koju also participated in the 13th Asian Games in Bangkok in 1998, 16th Asiad in China in 2010 and the 17th Asiad in South Korea in 2014 besides taking part in eighth SA Games in Kathmandu in 1999, ninth SA Games of Pakistan in 2004. The biggest achievement of her career came in 2010 when she bagged silver in Colombo SA Games.
Koju has achieved success in her life, but that did not come easy. She has suffered from injuries time and again. She was injured during the ninth South Asian Games held in Pakistan in 2004 and that dogged her for two years affecting her performance in the 10km race in Doha Asian Games. Koju got tendon injury during the New Taipei City Wan Jin Shi Marathon in Taiwan.
“My coach Raghu Raj Onta had suggested me not to take part in any event but I participated after the association selected me as I had set national record in Kathmandu Marathon,” says Koju. In her 21-year career, Koju remained away from athletics for a couple of years. “I don’t want to remember that episode as that is the black chapter of my career,” she says.
Koju believes the poor training facilities in the country were pushing sports behind. “We do not have proper facilities as almost all the players come to Dasharath Stadium for training. The synthetic track at the stadium is in pathetic condition with thousands of holes. The poor training facilities might cause injuries to players,” she adds. “We are so hapless that the same venue is used by martial arts players and athletes.”
Koju was so deeply involved into sports that she forgot to marry and she has no plans to tie nuptial knot as of now. “I always gave priority to athletics and running only. Actually I never thought about getting married. I have already spent 21 years in sports and athletics is my life. I think it’s too late to think about marriage as the time has already passed. And my parents also never forced me for that,” adds Koju.
Apart from domestic events, Koju has plans to compete and win medal in the 13th South Asian Games scheduled for March 9-18, 2019 on home soil. “As I have planned to run for at least two more years, I will compete in the 13th SAG if it is organised on time,” says Koju. Asked about the retirement plans, Koju says quitting from sports will be the hardest decision of her life. “Most of my colleagues and even juniors have already disappeared from the sport. They might have their own reasons. But I have not even thought of taking retirement,” he adds.
The performance of Koju is laudable and coaches and fellow athletes wonder how she has been managing to keep the spirit high. “People wonder seeing me running and running good. I think it all depends on determination,” adds Koju. “Some of my friends changed profession as they found it hard to earn their livings, while others just faded away due to poor performance. I am still here and it is just because of self motivation,” she adds.