Bendere Oboya: 5 lessons from a 400-metre phenom

Here are 5 takeaways from our conversation with Bendere Oboya, a future Olympian and Australia's fastest 400 metre sprinter in a generation.
Bendere Oboya: 5 lessons from a future Olympian (Credit Izzy Thornton-Bott)

Bendere Oboya is a prodigious talent in the 400 metre. And at 20 years young, the trajectory of her career is still very much on its upward plane. 

The reigning national champion has been virtually unbeatable on home soil, winning 19 of her last 20 races (according to World Athletics data).

And she looks destined to represent Australia at the next Olympics — whenever they happen (hopefully this year). 

Oboya is no stranger to elite international competition, and her best performance on the track arguably came at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, when she clocked a time of 51.21. 

The personal best was an Olympic qualifier, the fastest 400m time run by an Australian since 2003, and moved her into eighth all-time in the Australian rankings. 

If that wasn’t enough, the speedy lap made Oboya the second fastest Australian teenager in the distance. The only athlete faster: Cathy Freeman.

A new coach and continued improvement

Following that incredible performance in Doha, Oboya began working with a new coach in John Quinn. She says it’s been the best year of her career.

In addition to signing a deal with Adidas, she says she’s been improving on the track by focusing on strength and conditioning, and by learning how to optimise her race tactics and her pacing.  

Oboya was the subject of our March feature story, and we spoke to her at length about a range of topics: her start in the sport, her warp-speed progress, her introversion, struggles with injuries, her family’s journey from Ethiopia to Australia, her goals for the future, and her passions away from the sport.

It was a wide-ranging and insightful conversation, and Oboya was incredibly candid about her growth as a person, and athlete. She wants to compete at a world class level, and has the natural talent and work ethic to do so; but she’s also intent on being true to herself, and caring for herself, along that demanding journey.

It’s a journey that certainly promises to be exciting if you’re a fan of Australian athletics. We can’t wait to see Oboya continue to excel.

In the meantime: here are five lessons from future Olympian (and Australia’s fastest 400m sprinter in a generation) Bendere Oboya.

Bendere Oboya in training (Credit Izzy Thornton-Bott)
Bendere Oboya in training (Credit Izzy Thornton-Bott)

1. Focus on the present and be yourself

When you’re a virtual lock to represent your country at the Olympics (Oboya is the only Australian 400 metre runner to so far achieve the qualifying standard) and continually draw comparisons to all-time greats, it’s easy to get ahead of yourself. 

Not so for Oboya. The star athlete isn’t focusing on climbing the Australian rankings, chasing the national record, or becoming the next Cathy Freeman. 

While Oboya certainly has long-term goals in the sport, her day-to-day focus is more immediate: improvement. 

“I don’t think about the records. Not even the Australian record. I just run. If it does come, it does come,” Oboya says. “My main goal though is to just get 50 seconds. It’s just about running fast.” 

“[The national record] could be something that’s achievable later on — but right now I’m just focusing on myself.”  

Just be Bendere

Oboya, who is currently the 22nd ranked 400m runner in the world (as of 18 February), has shown a knack for performing well in big moments and believes she can make an Olympic final in Tokyo. 

But she needs to stay motivated: “I’m still not where I want to be,” she says. “This is just the start of my journey.” 

It’s the non-complacent mentality of someone chasing excellence, and who knows she can go 1, 2, maybe 3 seconds faster.

As for her place amongst the all-time greats, Oboya doesn’t concern herself with comparisons.

While she says she has deep admiration for Freeman and other Australian greats, she is intent on writing her own story: 

“I just want to be Bendere,” she says. “Everyone has their opinion about the type of person I am, but I’ve learned to block it out.

“As long as I know who I am, I don’t really think about it.”    

2. Sometimes it’s okay to be ‘clueless’ 

From childhood, Oboya wanted to be an athlete. And she says she dreamed about wearing an Australian singlet. And she certainly had some top-flight talent. 

Within a year of training seriously under a sprinting coach around the age of 15, her 400 metre time dropped from 75 to 53 seconds. That’s incredible progress.

And yet, she had no idea how fast she really was — or whether she was even remotely competitive. 

“My times kept dropping, but I didn’t really know what the times meant. I didn’t know how fast 53 was, or how fast 52 was.”

“But then I started racing against other girls — girls I followed on Instagram — and I was like, ‘Aw wait, so this must be fast.’” 

“It was kind of a clueless journey,” Oboya admitted when we spoke. “I had guidance from my coach, but I was a pretty clueless girl.” 

Helped by her lack of awareness

It may seem like a detriment. If you want to be competitive, surely it helps to know what competitive is. And surely you want to have a beat on who your main competitors are or might be. 

And when you’re running on the world stage, that’s probably true. 

But Oboya says this ignorance — in the early stages of her development — was actually a good thing. 

“It kinda helped me because I wasn’t thinking about competitions, I just went with things.” 

Rather than getting distracted by who she was racing, Oboya was focused solely on things she could control: her preparation, her race, and her own improvement. 

Improvement is about you

It’s only human to compare and measure ourselves against other people; but sometimes this can become problematic, especially in the age of Strava and social media.

It can be discouraging to see other athletes performing well on what looks like less training than us (according to the very incomplete, and void-of-context picture we get from their online updates).

Or else, we might begin to push ourselves beyond our limits to achieve what other runners are doing.

It’s important to remember that in running, everything is relative, and improvement isn’t a metric of how well you compare against someone else; it’s how well you compare against your former self.

3. Find the right training situation for your personality

When Oboya set a new personal best at the World Championships in Doha in 2019, she should have been over-the-moon. But a few weeks later, she says she was seriously considering her future in athletics. 

“I wanted to quit. I didn’t see the need of being an athlete if my mental health was going to be destroyed.” 

She says her unhappiness was due to an irreparable breakdown in the relationship with her former coach.  

It doesn’t really matter what went wrong between Oboya and her coach; what became glaringly obvious was the need to find a new training situation; one that better suited her personality.

After a two-week break from running, Oboya met with John Quinn, the former Australian sprints and relay coach at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Today, Quinn runs an exercise science consultancy business and coaches a sprinting squad based in Western Sydney.   

Bendere Oboya working with John Quinn (Credit Izzy Thornton-Bott)
Bendere Oboya working with John Quinn (Credit Izzy Thornton-Bott)

Take care of the person before the athlete

Quinn didn’t make a pitch to Oboya. This wasn’t about recruitment; he simply outlined his philosophy.

He told her he coached the person, not the athlete; and said she needed to have fun and feel in control of her training and career. Then he suggested she come for a 6-week trial, so she could make an educated decision about whether she wanted to stay.

“He basically said to me, ‘You have to take care of yourself; take care of the person you were before you became an athlete.’ And that was important to hear,” recalls Oboya.

Changing coaches and squads was a hard but necessary step for Oboya’s emotional well-being, and her career development. And after a year of working with Quinn, it seems to be paying dividends.

She says she’s back to having fun in training, enjoys the positivity within the group, and feels incredibly well-supported. She also says she’s enjoying the best season of her life. Hopefully, it will be a season that ends with an Olympic Games in Tokyo.

4. Tap into optimism when it comes to injuries

Oboya seemed poised to have a solid showing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, but she suffered an injury only two days from her opening heat. 

While working out at the gym, she tweaked her hamstring. It was painful, but given the stakes, she ran anyway.  

“I went out and I heard a ‘POP’ on the bend coming into the 300. I still finished — I ran 55 seconds. But I knew that was probably the end of my year.” 

The hamstring tear ended her Games, and caused her to miss the U20 World Championships in Finland a few months later.

This seems like an awful turn of events, and I asked Oboya how she coped with the injury. Was she heartbroken? Upset? Frustrated?

Her answer surprised me: “I knew I could have gone faster at that Commonwealth Games, but I wasn’t really upset. I just carried on. This stuff happens… I tend to see injuries like this as blessings in disguise.”  

Don’t default to pessimism

Oboya didn’t default to pessimism, but managed to tap-into an optimistic outlook. Sure, there was a degree of disappointment in not performing to her best ability, but the injury also represented an opportunity.   

It spurred the young athlete to begin taking her strength training more seriously. “I viewed the injury as something that was going to make me stronger — something that would help me go faster.”  

For a young athlete, this is an incredibly mature approach, and one that underscores Oboya’s work ethic and self-confidence.  

Injuries are tricky beasts. And they straight-up suck. Nobody wants to be on the side-line, or in pain, and I don’t want to preach to people that they need to be optimistic when an injury strikes, because I know how I’d react to that advice, no matter how sage.

That said, if there are some positives you can find amid the gloom, try your hardest to grasp onto them and use them as motivation to come back stronger.

5. Find passions away from sport

When Oboya was unhappy with her running and training, she says she found a creative outlet for her frustration in photography. 

Planning photoshoots with friends was a way to step back from the pressure and have fun. It was her so-called “switch-off button”. And it was also a way to showcase another side of her personality.  

“I visualise a lot, and I love the idea of capturing moments,” she says. “I call this my escape… When times are getting crazy, when training is getting too rough, I do switch to this.”  

Bendere shares her photos @viewsbyb. A lot of her artwork features friends and models of African heritage, whom she feels are underrepresented in Australian media.

What began as a distraction, has since blossomed into a passion, and a bit of a side-hustle. Oboya shares her work on her page @viewsbyb

At the moment, training for Tokyo is a full-time job, and her number one priority. But in the future, she hopes to return to school to study photography and refine her skills.  

Oboya knows she can’t compete at an elite level indefinitely, and says it’s important for every athlete to consider their future, and find a hobby or passion away from sport.

“I see my life outside of being an athlete,” she says. “I often think about what my life will be like after.”

Planning for the future is always wise. However, hopefully Oboya is running (and competing) for a very long time.

Want more? Check out all of RunCreature’s features and interviews.

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