The Rising Star

Suiwilanji has won over 20 gold medals in her 16 years. Now she has her eye on the largest prize of all—gold at Tokyo 2020. Story Sponsored by GE. 

Lusaka — We live in a society that demands speed. From fast food, fast delivery to fast cars. Whether we know it or not, we are all running — either from something or to something. Suwilanji Mpondela admits that she is no exception.  Except she runs as a way to escape. Growing up, her mother ran a school and  it was there that she began her journey to the track. Ever the competitive one, Suwilanji recalls outrunning the boys adding “I was a beast on my feet.” She would go on to compete at the International Schools Association of Zambia (ISAZ) Sports Festival and dominate, acquiring the name “The Rising Star.” When asked why that name, she retorted “A star is a mark of excellence, a shimmering light in the darkness and a beautiful sight. I decided not to call myself a shooting star because that is ephemeral; passing in a flash and unnoticed by many. I am a rising star that is slowly ascending for all to see.” 

Suwilanji with 4 x100m Relay Teammates at the Southern Region Championships

Suwilanji is a rising star in sprinting who has garnered thirty competitive medals: twenty gold, five silver, and five bronze …all across different sports disciplines such basketball, netball, volleyball and many others.  All at just sixteen years old. Despite these accolades she remains grounded, exuding an air of humility that is a rarity for someone with her level of ability. Suwilanji credits her success to discipline, determination and humility. “It is not about the medals but about competing with yourself because the only person you must strive to be better than is the one you were yesterday.” she emphasizes. Though some critics are quick to attribute her success to her dad, the head of the Zambia Amateur Athletics Association, no one can question her work ethic. Suwilanji practices the strict regimental routine of “eat, train, study, repeat.” All her training sessions are diaried and reviewed — almost like a motor vehicle test simulation. This personal drive is the reason she’s climbed from the interschool circuits to the Zambia National Team; the highest honor that any athlete can achieve. 

Suwilanji receiving medal at Southern Region Championships 2016

Suwilanji maintains that running is as much mental as it is physical and thus it’s important to maintain positivity at all costs. Therefore, she prefers not to directly respond to critics, instead leveraging their criticism to fuel her success on the track.  “I cannot deny that I am my father’s daughter something that I am proud of but I do not run for him, but for me because I just love to run”, she says. She reflects on a time when she had to convince her dad that she was serious about running. Contrary to the popular belief that she has it easy, Suwilanji says  she instead has to work harder than her peers which is something she has gotten accustomed to. There's an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Suwilanji attributes her success to her parents for their encouragement and instilling in her the drive to aim high. 

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Suwilanji has come a long journey, from running in front of a handful of people to millions. Apart from the collection of medals, she admits to having gained valuable life lessons on the track likening the sport to being like a parent. With her eyes set on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, she is determined to keep going and the world will want to watch for this rising star as she aims to make an indelible mark on the Tokyo skyline. 

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