Olympic-bound: Bendere Oboya believes her best is yet to come

The fastest Australian woman over 400 metres in a generation, Bendere Oboya is a virtual lock to represent her country at the Olympics. Myles Gough talks to the reigning national champion about taking control of her destiny and striving for greatness in Tokyo and beyond.

At the end of 2019, Bendere (pronounced Ben-dare-ee) Oboya should have been riding a wave of happiness. 

The 400 metre phenom, who resides and trains in western Sydney, had just represented Australia at the World Championships in Doha, Qatar. 

On the biggest international stage of her young career, Oboya — then just 19 — clocked a phenomenal 51.21 in her opening heat. 

The personal best time, under the bright lights of Khalifa International Stadium, was fast enough to see her through to the semi-finals. 

But the teenager’s run was impressive for several other notable reasons. 

For starters, it was an Olympic qualifier. It was also the fastest 400m run by an Australian woman since 2003, and moved Oboya into eighth all-time in the national rankings. 

And perhaps, most significantly, it was the country’s second fastest time ever recorded by an under-20 female athlete. The only runner ahead of Oboya in that domain: Cathy Freeman. 

In that single, swift lap of the track, Oboya cemented her status as Australia’s fastest 400m sprinter in a generation.

Bendere Oboya ran her best ever race at the 2019 World Championships.
Bendere Oboya is Australia’s second fastest under-20 female in the 400m. The only athlete faster: none other than Cathy Freeman. Credit Daniel Sigaki.

In the immediate aftermath, she was thrilled. This was the pay-off for her hard work in training, and it brought her one crucial step closer to her ultimate ambition: Olympian. 

Her happiness should have been long-lasting; a compelling motivator to keep her pushing toward Tokyo through the first half of 2020. 

Instead, when she returned to Australia, her elation was replaced with distress and uncertainty.

Oboya says her relationship with her then-coach completely broke down following the World Championships, and she began to “hate” training with the squad that had once felt like family. 

Things became so problematic, Oboya tells RunCreature she was seriously contemplating her future in the sport. 

“I wanted to quit. I didn’t see the need of being an athlete if my mental health was going to be destroyed. And I saw it that way because I thought, at the time, I had no other options.” 

If Australia was going to see its most prodigious 400m runner realise her vast reservoir of potential, Oboya needed to reclaim control of her career, and destiny. 

And she needed to once again find joy in running. 

A generation (and world) apart

It will live forever as one of Australia’s greatest sporting moments. 

On 25 September 2000, in front of a frenzied and captivated home crowd, with the weight of a nation on her shoulders, Cathy Freeman, donning her futuristic-looking swift suit, blazed to gold at the Sydney Olympics.  

It was magical. Spectacular. Surreal. 

Australia had in Freeman a bonafide, world-class superstar.  

Across the Indian Ocean, Bendere Oboya was less than six months old at the time of that immortal race; an infant living with her parents and five older siblings in Ethiopia. 

Before Oboya could ever dream of becoming an athlete, and following in the footsteps of Freeman, her family needed to survive. 

They were members of a minority ethnic group known as the Anuak. The Anuak community had long endured persecution by the Ethiopian government, and violence at the hands of state authorities. 

On 13 December 2003, this violence reached an unprecedented and unspeakable climax, when uniformed members of the Ethiopian military aided in the mass-murder of more than 400 Anuak people.    

Human Rights Watch has called the incident a “crime against humanity”.

A new life in a new land

Following these atrocities, Oboya’s family fled Ethiopia and eventually found their way to Australia. Oboya was just 3-years-old when they arrived and still remembers the aeroplane journey.  

“We came for a better life,” she says. 

She doesn’t elaborate. Her brevity conveys the hard, yet simple reality. 

Her family didn’t speak English when they arrived, but navigated their settlement with the help of Oboya’s Aunty and Uncle, and her young cousins, who were already living in western Sydney. 

They found an apartment in Pendle Hill — a suburb near Parramatta — and Oboya and her siblings enrolled in school.  

This was the beginning of a new chapter in their lives, in a new land.  

Understanding the Anuak 

The Anuak people traditionally lived in villages along the banks of the upper Nile river, both in South Sudan, and in the remote Gambella region of western Ethiopia. 

As early as the late 1970s, the Ethiopian government began dispossessing ancestral Anuak land, which houses rich gold deposits and oil reserves . This was land the Anuak had farmed and hunted upon for centuries. 

People from other, ethnically-distinct tribes were relocated into the region as labourers to help with the Ethiopian government’s planned economic development. 

The arrival of these migrants triggered tensions and conflicts. Anuak resistance to this encroachment, sometimes violent, effectively made the entire community an enemy of the state and a “legitimate target for [military] attack,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). 

Beatings and torture of Anuak civilians by soldiers became so commonplace, that many victims interviewed by HRW considered it a “normal part of their existence”.  

During the 1990s, thousands of Anuak, fearing for their safety, fled to refugee camps in neighbouring Kenya. This exodus foreshadowed a worsening situation, and a horror yet to come.

In December 2003, the Anuak suffered their darkest day. Uniformed members of the Ethiopian military were witnessed participating in the mass killing of more than 400 Anuak people. In the following week, 1000 Anuak homes were burned to the ground. And over the next few months, several more villages were razed and looted by soldiers.   

The plight of the Anuak people went largely unreported at the time, but has since gained more attention due to the testimonies of Anuak survivors and witnesses, and the investigatory work of organisations like HRW and the Anuak Justice Council.

A talent found, a dream discovered

At school, Oboya discovered she had a knack for running. Fast

For a number of years, however, it was a talent she rarely got to display. 

Her favourite day, by far, was the yearly athletics carnival, where she routinely raced against older girls. 

“Every year I waited and I waited for the carnival,” she recalls. “But that was pretty much the only time I ever competed or ran.” 

That changed when she was about 13. 

Oboya remembers browsing the Internet at home and landing on the Athletics Australia website. 

As she clicked on articles, and read about different athletes, and saw photographs of them in action in their Green-and-Gold kits, a forceful thought entered her mind. 

“I really wanted to have the Australian uniform on,” she tells RunCreature.  

Oboya had no idea if she had enough talent, but she was suddenly filled with a desire to represent her adopted country. 

Bendere Oboya has long dreamed of being an Olympian.
Bendere Oboya has never shied away from hard work in the pursuit of her dream to represent Australia at the Olympics. Credit: Izzy Thornton-Bott.

Rapid but ‘clueless’ gains

With her parents’ support, she began Little Athletics. It was her first foray into semi-serious training.

In early 2016, when she was 15-years-old, she took the next step and began working with a sprinting coach, Greg Smith. 

Oboya began to focus almost exclusively on the 400m, and in about the span of a year, her personal best time had dropped from 75 to 53 seconds. 

“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 admits. “I had guidance from my coach, but I was a pretty clueless girl. I think that kinda helped, though, because I wasn’t thinking about competitions, I just went with things.” 

A dream come true: her first Aussie uniform 

In March 2017, Oboya finished second at the Australian U18 Championships. The result earned her a ticket to the Bahamas to compete at the Commonwealth Youth Games. 

It was her first national team. Oboya, realising her dream of donning the Green-and-Gold, did not disappoint. 

She finished first in her opening heat in a time of 53.77. Then, in the finals, she turned it up a notch — out of necessity. 

She ran a new personal best — 52.69 — to win gold. And she needed every millisecond to edge-out fellow Australian, Ella Connolly, who ran a nearly-as-impressive 52.72. 

The competition was an excellent learning experience, says Oboya. 

It was an opportunity to become more familiar with the environment and pressure of high-level international athletics; and also an opportunity to refine her racing technique and pacing strategy. 

Bendere Oboya is the only Australian 400m runner with an Olympic qualifier.
Bendere Oboya is the only Australian 400m runner with an Olympic qualifier. Credit: Izzy Thornton-Bott

What’s in a name? 

When Bendere’s older sister was born, she was the family’s only daughter, and so she was named accordingly: Awili. 

It means “only girl” in the native Anuak language (Dha-anywaa), Oboya explains. “That’s the language I grew up with, and I still speak it now.” 

When she was born, her parents settled on the name Bendere. 

“My name means ‘to be by myself’ and it kinda describes me,” she says.  “I’m an introvert so I like my space. I like being on my own… Even if I was in a room with other people, I kind of like to make my own little bubble.” 

Introversion has its benefits in competition: “You’re not focusing on anyone else; you’re focusing on yourself. I put myself in that bubble on the track, and it’s good, because I can focus purely on my race… I’m in my zone.” 

When she was younger, however, it was challenging — especially at school.“I guess being the only black girl in my year, it was quite hard to make friends.” 

Oboya still remembers the hurt of that loneliness; the judgement of children weary of someone who looked different. She says she figured out very early that sport was a way to bridge racial and cultural divides. 

“I looked at sport as a way to connect myself with everyone else — every other culture — because it was something I was good at. If I can run, then I can make new friends with girls who don’t look like me. That was my mentality.”

Outperforming Olympians 

With her triumph in the Bahamas, Oboya proved she was a world-class junior. Next, she needed to show she could hold her own against open-category athletes. 

This opportunity arose in February 2018 at the Australian Championships, which was doubling as the Commonwealth Games trials.

After winning her preliminary heat, Oboya clocked 51.94 in the finals. The PB was good for second place, and saw her finish ahead of Rio Olympians Morgan Mitchell (3rd) and Caitlin Sargent-Jones (4th). 

Bendere Oboya finishes second at the 2018 Australian Championships. This was a breakout moment for the rising star.

At 17, Oboya had undoubtedly arrived. And she was demonstrating a penchant for showing-up when it mattered most. Her performance earned her an automatic nod to represent Australia at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. 

An untimely injury 

Expectations for Oboya were high. She was young, but she felt ready. And her once-in-a-generation-type talent was making comparisons to Freeman inevitable.  

But Oboya’s lofty goals for the Gold Coast got derailed — only two days before she was due to race. 

“We had started doing some light gym sessions,” she recalls. “I was pretty inexperienced in the gym at that stage. I don’t think my hamstring was properly developed, and I got an injury.” 

Oboya remembers feeling discomfort, but not enough pain to keep her sidelined at the biggest meet of her career. 

“I just said, ‘forget it,’ and I still ran,” she tells RunCreature.  

“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.

A blessing in disguise 

Some might have expected the athlete to be devastated. But Oboya didn’t let the disappointment consume her.   

“It’s kinda weird,” she says. “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.”  

If there was a silver lining, it was that Oboya began to take 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.”  

And faster she was destined to go. In the first half of 2019, Oboya won the NSW, Australian and Oceania Championships. This trifecta paved the way for her selection to represent Australia at the 2019 World Championships in Doha.  

Self-belief and a sense of belonging 

Oboya knows why everything came together in Doha. Above all else, it was a matter of self-belief. 

“One-hundred per cent,” she tells RunCreature. 

“[At the Commonwealth Games] I was just like, ‘Okay I’m here for the experience.’ But in Doha, I wanted to see what I could really do. I felt like I belonged. I went in with a different mindset and thought of myself as a competitor.” 

With the world’s best athletes on the track beside her, pushing her, Doha was an optimal chance to clear a vital hurdle en route to the Olympics.   

“I went in saying, ‘I’m going to get the qualifier’. I got the qualifier.” 

[A qualifying time does not guarantee a national team selection. However, Oboya remains the only Australian to have met the women’s 400 metre standard (51.35) for Tokyo.]

Although she didn’t make the finals, Oboya views Doha as a success. And not just because of her performance on the track.

A different experience in Doha

Oboya says her experience in the athlete village at the 2019 World Championships was far more enjoyable than at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, where she remembers feeling isolated.   

“I spent a lot of time in my room [on the Gold Coast],” she tells RunCreature.

“It didn’t play out to be the best experience. It was just — it was kinda like I was just there as a chore.” 

Oboya self-identifies as an introvert, but believes she struggled to make friends with Australian athletes at the Games because of her then-training culture. 

“The environment I was training in, it was like, you stick to yourself and go about your business,” she says. “That’s the attitude I had.” 

She wasn’t at the Gold Coast to make friends, or get cozy with teammates, or celebrate their successes. She was there to perform a job and to assert her dominance.  

A double-edged sword 

As a junior athlete, this culture was all Oboya knew.  

On one hand, it helped build her into a fearless and fearsome competitor. She learned to pair a stoic determination and focus with seemingly effortless speed to frightening effect. 

Oboya may have a slight frame, but when she lines up on home soil, her presence looms intimidatingly large. 

Over the last two years she’s been virtually unbeatable.  

According to World Athletics results data, Oboya has competed in 20 domestic 400m races since January 2019. She’s won 19 and is the reigning Australian champion.

Bendere Oboya has been virtually unbeatable on home soil.
Bendere Oboya has been virtually unbeatable on home soil since January 2019, winning 19 of 20 World Athletics sanctioned races. Credit: Izzy Thornton-Bott

Oboya credits her first coach — Smith — for helping her realise her potential and drawing-out her competitive instinct. 

But she also says the culture, and his coaching style, became ill-suited to her personality. In her mind, it served to magnify her introversion and shyness, and, in certain circumstances, she says it alienated her from peers — elite athletes whom she wanted to identify with.

Increasingly, it was making running a joyless pursuit, she says. 

An attitude change and unwanted attention 

In April 2019, Smith had his coaching accreditation suspended by Athletics Australia. This was due to an investigation by the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA, now Sport Integrity Australia).  

According to ASADA, Smith tested positive for a banned substance in May 2018. He successfully appealed the ban and his accreditation was restored.

Nevertheless, Oboya was upset. The rising-star resented having her name mentioned in media reports about Smith’s alleged use of performance enhancing drugs, and says she felt like her reputation was negatively impacted. 

She stayed with his squad through 2019, but says she wanted to be more in control of her career — the people she was around, how she conducted herself in competition, and most crucially, the sponsorship opportunities that were becoming available. 

The World Championships were an opportunity to create some separation. 

“I made sure Doha wasn’t like that [experience at the Gold Coast],” she tells RunCreature.

“I made sure my coach didn’t come — it was just me. I could be myself. I made friends, had fun, and I wasn’t thinking about anything else… I really just wanted Doha to be my experience.” 

A tough decision

Oboya not only ran her fastest-ever race in Doha, she felt a sense of liberation; she was more relaxed, happier. She had caught glimpses of the career she wanted.

Back in Australia, Oboya says she tried to reintegrate with her squad, but it quickly became clear she “needed to get out of that situation”. 

It seems simple. If you’re unhappy, leave. 

But Oboya was just 19. This was uncharted territory. And there was another issue she was grappling with: the not-yet-postponed Olympics were scheduled for July 2020 — just seven months away. 

Oboya didn’t think she had enough time to find a new training group. 

She says she felt trapped, and confused. 

“I remember being at Starbucks, and my friends were asking me a lot of questions. ‘What’s your next move? What are you going to do?’ And I just started vomiting. 

“I was like, ‘Okay, this is not right. I’ve never felt like this before.’” 

“You know how in the movies, you start spinning? That’s kinda where I was at. And I knew.”

The next day, Oboya officially left the squad.  

A reset and a new coach

No matter what’s going on in her life, or how crazy her schedule gets, Oboya says she always tries to “make time to drive to the beach to watch the sunrise”. 

There’s something reassuring about these dawn moments, staring over the ocean. 

“It’s like you’re starting your day, or your week off the right way,” she says. “It’s like a reset.”    

A reset was exactly what Oboya needed. 

At the end of 2019, Bendere Oboya needed a reset. She changed coaches and rediscovered her passion for running.
Bendere Oboya was considering quitting running at the end of 2019. A fresh start with a new coach helped turn things around for the rising star. Credit: Izzy Thornton-Bott

In late December 2019, after a two week break from the sport, she tagged along with a friend and fellow athlete — Jordan Sarmento — to meet esteemed sprinting coach, John Quinn. 

The former sprint and relay coach for the Australian team at the Sydney Olympics, Quinn has an impressive resume. He’s held coaching positions with the Australian Institute of Sport (track and field), has served as a high-performance coach with two AFL clubs, and even worked as the head conditioner with the Socceroos.

Quinn now runs a sports consultancy and exercise physiology business in Sydney, and works with athletes ranging from elite tennis players and cricketers, to boxers. 

But his true passion has always been athletics, and running fast, he says.

He had started a track squad based out of Sydney Olympic Park, and one of his top runners was a Gambian sprinter named Abdoulie “Buster” Asim, who remained in Australia to seek asylum following the 2018 Commonwealth Games. 

Under Quinn, Asim had not only managed to find his feet; he was turning heads on the track. Most notably, he won the 2019 Burnie Gift, a prestigious 120-metre sprint in Tasmania. 

Oboya and Sarmento were intrigued by Asim’s improvement; and by the coach behind the scenes. 

A positive first impression

From the very start, Quinn made it clear to Oboya that his philosophy wasn’t solely about speed and performance. Her mental health, and having fun, would be top priorities. 

“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.”   

A major part of Quinn’s coaching philosophy is that enjoyment has to come before skill development, or ramping up intensity. If you’re going to compete at a high-level, you have to enjoy what you do, he says.  

And you can’t just enjoy the competition; you have to enjoy the process of training, and the experiences of being with teammates.    

“I think it’s very important to develop the experiential part of sport, not just the moment in time when you’ve gotten to your point of excellent. It’s a very lonely existence to be doing that,” he tells RunCreature 

Quinn also made it clear to Oboya that she was in control. 

“I’ve never asked an athlete to coach them,” Quinn says. “I think the athlete has to want to make that move themselves.

“And when an athlete comes through the front door, I always make sure they understand the back door’s open if they want to go. ‘You’re not stuck, you’re not trapped here. You have to do what’s best for you.’” 

His proposition to Oboya and Sarmento: a six-week trial with his squad. 

If they liked it, they could stay. And if they didn’t see a future there, they could walk away with no ill-will or judgement.  

“What’s important,” he recalls saying, “is that you make the decision that’s best for you based on what you know, rather than what you hope it’s going to be.”

Oboya and Sarmento were sold. 

Not looking backward

Quinn knows it can be a “traumatic experience” for an athlete to break-up with a coach; and he could see it weighing on Oboya.   

His approach, he says, was not to “focus on the elephant in the room.” 

“Instead, I just focused on the things that we needed to do to improve, and we didn’t look backwards. We just kept looking forward.”  

Quinn says part of this approach involved going back to basics.

“I certainly don’t want to suggest there wasn’t good coaching being done [before]. You can’t run at that level without good coaching,” he says. 

“But there were — I believe — some significant technical flaws in her running.” 

Quinn’s major focus with Oboya was building leg strength and increasing her power; he’s also been working with her on what he terms “race patterns” — the subtly different approaches to executing the different stages of a 400m race.   

He quickly learned that, in Oboya, he was dealing with a rare talent — with an even rarer genetic advantage.   

“She’s got this incredible ability — I haven’t had an athlete before like it — where she can do high-stress, lactic-type work; where everyone’s on their hands and knees on the ground, but within 90 seconds to two minutes she’s up walking around. And within five minutes you wouldn’t even know she’d done any work, while the rest of the group is still staggering around.” 

“I’ve never seen anything like her ability to recover. For me, it’ll be a future academic study somewhere. Her genetic predisposition is one of the main reasons she’s so good.”   

Pushing her limits

More recently, Quinn has been trying to work with Oboya to pinpoint exactly where her physical limitations are. She’s already run world-class times, but he believes they’ve come while operating well-within herself; he knows she can go faster. 

Quinn used a meet in Canberra in mid-February as an experiment.  

“I asked Bendere to run quite an aggressive, almost reckless 400, to look at her limitations, because I want to set up her race patterns over the next 3 to 4 years. This might be a pretty nondescript competition, but from a long-term planning perspective, it’s quite significant.’ Run very hard for the first 300, and just see what you’ve got for the last 100.” 

The goal is to help Oboya control her pacing to achieve optimal “differentials” — that is, the time difference between her 100m splits.  

Coach John Quinn working with Bendere Oboya.
Bendere Oboya working with her coach John Quinn. Credit: Izzy Thornton-Bott.

While nobody negative-splits a competitive 400m race, Quinn says the goal is to get your 100m stages “as close and uniform as you possibly can”. Helping Oboya decode her optimal pacing strategy will help prepare her mentally to trust herself, he says. 

“When she does run in the final in Tokyo, she’s not [going to be] over-awed when the girl in lane 8 goes out like a scalded rat.”

“She knows, ‘I’m running at this level. This is my tempo, this is how I run.’ So I put her in control of how to run the race.” 

While Quinn is bringing an analytical approach to mentoring Oboya, and planning her strategy, he’s careful not to be too rigid or prescriptive in his expectations. 

“I think athletics is an artform… an expression of yourself,” he says. “I don’t want to put too many confines on Bendere, or say ‘You have to run this way’ almost like a robotic expression of the 400. Because Bendere’s 400 is an expression of her ability, and her skill and talent, and her art. So I have to let her express that. 

“My job is to make sure she has the best canvas, and the best brushes and the very best paints to work with.” 

A career year

In a little more than a year with her new coach, Oboya has not only rediscovered her passion for the sport; she’s improved as an athlete, gained confidence, and changed her outlook on what it means to be a good teammate and role model. 

In the past, Oboya says she viewed other athletes merely as rivals. 

“Since changing coaches, I realise that’s not how you get around in athletics and in sport in general.” 

“It’s not bad to help people, or see other people winning — it helps you at the end of the day. If they go faster, you go faster.”  

“I feel like I’ve grown up a lot in the past year,” she says. “So far I’ve had the best season I’ve ever had.”  

In addition to changing coaches, Oboya achieved two other career milestones in 2020: she signed with Adidas, and is now being represented by ICM Stellar, a global sports agency. 

Her future in athletics is no longer in question; it’s full-speed ahead to Tokyo. But Oboya knows she can’t afford to be complacent. She needs to stay hungry. 

“There are still other [Australian] girls who can qualify for the Olympics,” she says.  

Her plan is to begin hitting low-52s in March, and to run another Olympic standard time (low-51s) before June. 

“That might be hard to do in Australia,” she says. “I would need a lot of push, or a girl going through 300m fast with me. It is possible, because there are so many talented 400 runners… the wind has to be perfect, the weather has to be perfect, it has to be a fast track.” 

“But it’s something John and I have in mind to do… hitting another Olympic qualifier is something I need to do.” 

Passions beyond sport

Oboya may only be 20-years-old, but she’s already thinking about life after running. And she’s fairly certain it will involve photography.

When she’s not blazing around the track, Oboya can often be found wielding a camera. 

“I visualise a lot, and I love the idea of capturing moments,” she says.

“It’s really important, not just for me, but for every athlete. I call this my escape… When times are getting crazy, when training is getting too rough, I do switch to this.”  

She started her photography page — @viewsbyb — when she was struggling with her former training group. It was a welcome distraction, which has since blossomed into a passion, and side-hustle. 

“Even now, when training gets to be too much, I’ll go and shoot this, and plan a photoshoot to get my mind off things. I feel like, as an athlete, if you don’t have a switch-off button, or a hobby, you’re not going to know what to do when your career finishes.” 

In the short-term, Tokyo is front of mind. That’s her overarching goal, and the training demands don’t leave much time for anything else, she says. But in the future, Oboya would love to carve out time to go to school for photography. 

And it’s far from her only dream. Oboya hopes to use her platform to — one day — open a school for children in her home country of Ethiopia. 

“That’s my dream-dream, outside of athletics,” she says. “I value the fact that there are people who did not get the same opportunities as me. And opening a school is something I’ve wanted to do from a very young age. That’s always stuck with me.”

Australia’s next Cathy Freeman? 

On paper, the comparison between Bendere Oboya and Cathy Freeman may seem apt. And Oboya has long admired the Australian great. 

“In the past, I watched Cathy…. But I didn’t always watch what [she] did on the track, it was more what [she] did off the track,” says Oboya. 

“She didn’t let the pressure get to her. Not at all… I really look at that and it inspires me.”  

Nevertheless, Oboya is intent on writing her own story. 

“I used to care [about the comparison],” she tells RunCreature, “but now it’s just noise.” 

“Although Cathy is amazing, I just want to be Bendere. 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.”    

She’s not concerned about her place in the Australian rankings. What occupies her mind is the immediate task at hand: improvement. 

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

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

Oboya is currently the 22nd ranked female 400m runner in the world (as of 18 February). She believes that ranking can be higher.  

She’s shown she can perform under pressure, and come Tokyo, she’ll be aiming to make an Olympic final. Regardless, she knows her best is yet to come. 

“I’m still not where I want to be,” she says. 

“I think — well I don’t think, I know — this is just the start of my journey. Doha was just the start of it all. I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen with my new coach in the future.” 

Bendere Oboya believes her best is yet to come.
Bendere Oboya isn’t concerned with her place in the rankings. She’s simply focused on getting better. And she knows her best is yet to come. Credit: Izzy Thornton-Bott.

The greatest ever?

Quinn is excited too. 

He worked closely with Freeman as the 400m relay coach at the Sydney Olympics, and was trackside for her gold medal race. 

Quinn also coached Jana Pittman, a two-time world champion in the 400m hurdles, and the 4th fastest Australian woman over 400m. 

In Oboya, he sees the same unflappable-demeanour under pressure that Freeman possessed, and the same sheer, give-everything determination of Pittman. 

Where Oboya differs, however, is her scope for improvement. 

“I don’t think she’s got anywhere near the training background that Freeman or Pittman had. And yet she’s out there running times that are within the blink of an eye of both of them.” 

When it comes to his athlete’s potential, Quinn is deliberate, and direct in his appraisal.  

“I believe that Bendere Oboya — barring some mishap or injury — will be the best athlete over 400 metres that we’ve ever had in this country.” 

“It’s going to take a couple of years to keep developing it, but Bendere Oboya is on her way. The pressure is on me, the coach, to make sure I can get this work of art framed and hung on the wall properly for everyone to see how good she can be.” 

When that day comes; when her dominance is on full display for a national audience, Quinn believes she’ll become “more for this country” than a phenomenal athlete. 

“She’s going to be a unifier like we’ve never had before for African Australians.”    

It’s a tall order for an introvert; still 20 years young. But Oboya takes pride in the possibility. And more immediately, she wants to be a role model for young Australians, particularly those of African heritage. 

“I would love to inspire more girls who look like me — more African girls — to get into athletics in Australia.” 

Want more? Check out all of RunCreature’s long-form features and interviews. And make sure to follow Bendere Oboya on Instagram.

Myles Gough

Myles Gough

Remember to follow me on Strava and Instagram. Or message me if you have any questions or tips at myles@runcreature.com.

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