Former street mile and cross-country champion Gabriel Awaseb was the first Namibian to wear the country’s national colours.
While the rest of the nation was enjoying independence celebrations on 21 March, 1990, the Otjiwarongo-born star was sweating it out on the racetrack during an international cross-country event in France.
The matriculant from Paresis Secondary School at Otjiwarongo made the country proud during what would turn out to be his first and last race overseas by finishing sixth out of 192 international runners from Europe, Africa and the United States.
Awaseb also received his junior Springbok colours, and later, in 1989, senior Springbok colours.
“I am only a little sad that independence came a little too late for some of us, because we were already slowing down a little in 1990. I was a very fierce competitor on the track, cross-country and the street mile. I took every race I ran very seriously.
“I won races in my country, and I also used to win in South Africa. In fact, I was peaking well between 1985 and 1988,” he says.
Famous for his barefoot running, no matter the distance, Awaseb made people sit down and take notice when he showed the world-famous marathon and ultramarathon athlete Bruce Fordyce a clean pair of shoes during a pre-independence 50km race they took part in in 1987.
“That was one of my most wonderful moments in athletics. Even the journalists, especially those from the Afrikaans newspapers, could not come to terms with the fact that I beat Bruce, who won the South African Comrades Marathon a record nine times.
“Instead of recognising the talent of the young black athlete from their own country, the press shamelessly wrote that Bruce was used to longer distances, and the race got finished while he was warming up.
“The fact remains: I finished first and Bruce was second,” he says.
Awaseb says his style was based on endurance as well as on tactics.
He says he was never in front of the pack during a long-distance race, and that he would only start working his way up to the front in the final stages of the race and go full throttle to the finish line.
The winner of five consecutive Kaiserstrasse street miles from 1984 to 1988 was also named junior sportsman of the year in 1986.
“I was an in-demand athlete during my heyday. I was wanted by both Rössing Uranium Limited and Tsumeb Corporation Limited (TCL), because the mines were always on the lookout for talented young runners to offer job contracts.
“However, my school principal, Morkel, wouldn’t allow me to sign up with one of the mines, because he wanted me fully focused on my schoolwork first.
“The school promised to assist my mom, who was a single domestic worker at the time, with finishing my matric.”
The champion runner opted for TCL after completing school, and his decision was motivated by the fact that his girlfriend (who is now his wife) hails from Tsumeb, which was also in closer proximity to his hometown, Otjiwarongo.
Awaseb was eventually part of the star-studded TCL Athletics Club.
The former champion says during the apartheid era, good runners from his generation didn’t receive good international exposure, which could have made them raise the country’s flag higher.
“We were denied the chance to compete against the world’s top athletes overseas and on the continent, apart from in South Africa,” he says.
Awaseb says he stopped running after he married his childhood girlfriend, Cecily Louw, in 1995.
The couple has two sons.
The retired runner is now a master’s degree holder in business administration, and is currently employed as an executive for network operations by the Central-Northern Regional Electricity Distributor (Cenored).
Awaseb, who was until recently the acting chief executive officer of the company, also had stints at Namdeb and NamPower before he joined Cenored.
“I am responsible for the entire technical part of the company. I belong to the team that maintains, supplies and distributes technical parts for the entire Cenored.
“My team and I attend breakdowns of our equipment and maintain it.
“We are facing a lot of challenges due to vandalism and the theft of our infrustructure,” he says.
Awaseb says he is also a serious farmer and owns a company which drills for water.
In addition, his family runs a butchery on a smallholding in the Grootfontein area.
Awaseb says he is currently not involved in athletics or any other sport, adding that there is a dire need for all the former top runners to get together and discuss how to plough back into the younger generation.
His advice to young people is the following: “When you are disciplined, that same spirit of competitiveness follows you, whether it is in farming, or in the corporate world.
“We need to invest in the youth, because sport gives you the urge to compete in everything, and it can change your life for the better,” he says.
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