72-Year-Old Local Athlete Brings More Medals Home to Fresno
Kemisole Solwazi Looks Back at Unexpected Start in U.S. Olympics
The California Advocate —
They asked if she would be interested in training to be a sprint runner, something Solwazi thought was a joke, but she accepted their offer reasoning she had nothing to lose because at least she would get fit. Now over 16 years later with 10 world medals and too many U.S. medals to count, it seems the joke was on her.
"I knew nothing about distance, how to come out of the blocks [block training], I knew nothing.
I was what my coach considered to be 'raw talent on a junior high school level.' He decided to enroll me at city college, so the coach there could train me. I earnestly started working outâ€¦they said she's fast enough she can probably go to the master's competition."
Solwazi said after her Coach Randy Huntington saw she was competition, he put her on a track and distance running team called Kaiser Olympic. She first competed in the Central Valley Conference against women distance athletes and came in 10th out of over 200 runners back in 1996. "It was natural; I'm what they call a 'genetic athlete.'"
"My friend said genetic athletes are built by nature to do what they are capable of doing, it might be tennis, or running but by genes they are given an ability; mine was at a late stage," said Solwazi.
Within months, she competed at the U.S. national competition in New York where 82 countries were represented and she received gold medals in her first major competition.
Once she began to seriously train and compete against professional athletes who were in the running longer than she was, her family couldn't help but question her decision.
"I didn't think I was going to be a professional runnerâ€¦some thought I was having a mid-life crisis."
Now 72-year-old Solwazi said she made the decision for her well-being and let the awards speak for themselves. She believes all things are designed to move and when you stop moving you're like a car sitting on blocks and you rust.
"I always tell people, it's not [the] medal or any kind of accolades, it's about my health. If it becomes unhealthy for me I will stop. If I don't do this I will be like my siblings with diabetesâ€¦the medals just come along with it. It's not ego or anything like that, it's a side line," said Solwazi.
Solwazi recently returned from Indiana where she competed in the U.S. Track & Field national competition. She returned in March with one gold medal and five other silver medals. She received silver medals for the 60 meter race, 2 mile race, one mile race, 200 meter race and 800 meter race. But the gold medal she proudly carried home was from the 400 meter race.
"The best race I had was the 400 meter because it was first and that's when I almost broke the record."
The competition presented a new challenge because she had never run indoors before; her coach told her in the past it was too steep.
"It did take an adjustment because of the curves and it slowed me down a bit but I came in second and that was OK. My specialty is 200 and 400 but this coach stretched me out. It was the first time I ran indoors ever. I ran from a 60 meter to 2 mile. I ran 60 meters in 10 seconds, but I can run it faster."
She was so excited during the competition that she received a yellow flag for starting too quickly. Solwazi said her feet just carried her to the finish line before she could realize it. "I calmed down and popped out and before I knew it I was at the finish line. The cameramen were right up on me, I had to jump to miss them."
She came in second place in the one-mile race against competitors in her age group.
Solwazi said she feels nervous before competing but she doesn't allow it to impact her performance.
"I feel a little nervous but I have a tendency to calm down right at the start, it's a focus. It's not the nerves that people talk about. It's more of a determination, kind of a fire, a strength..and I feel like I do whatever I have to do."
To Solwazi, competition does not have a face, name or place in the race; the only competition she faces is time because that's what decides the win. She said pure determination pushes her forward.
"No one else is important, there's just me and the clock. I have been trained to run 200 [meters] in 33 seconds, and make it in 32 seconds. Let me see if I can beat that clock. I don't see anyone."
The retired teacher from the west Fresno School District spends her time gardening and training when not not competing.
When back home her regimen consists of working out 5 days a week.
"I work out five times a week in distance running and track, and then two days at the gym. I try and give myself one or two days to rest in between."
Solwazi trains all over Fresno at a site called Killer Hill in Woodward Park.
"Once you run it you know what I'm talking about. You can start at the bottom of the hill and go straight up, even the high school goes there for training. It's called 'Killer Hill' because it almost kills you when you get up there."
Solwazi said she has been a runner all her life but was searching for an opportunity to live out her potential because she recognized it at a young age.
"There were tracks at Black high schools in Saint Louis where I grew up, but when I got to a white school they were hesitant about women running, so there wasn't a track team."
But nothing could keep her from competing in street races and also racing against her dog.
"I would beat the guys. Barry Minson never forgave me, he thought he was fast. He stayed mad at me for a long time."
Although Solwazi started her athletic career later in life she doesn't look back or wish she became an Olympic runner any sooner than the age of 54.
"I don't have any regrets, it [your dreams] may not be when you want it but it's right on timeâ€¦I've learned your only as strong as your spirit and mind. Your body you can work with but what you are in your spirit and mind, nothing surpasses that," said Solwazi.
Solwazi is now looking forward to her upcoming competition in August