Belgian sprinter Cynthia Bolingo in action (© AFP / Getty Images)
For many elite athletes, pain is a constant companion. Whether it’s on the track, in the gym or on the treatment table, their capacity to endure is typically off the charts.
Yet there’s a good kind of pain and a bad kind of pain, and over the past 18 months Cynthia Bolingo has endured all too much of the latter. First, the Belgian sprinter saw her 2019 season wiped out by a chronic issue with her Achilles tendon.
But as hard as it was it was nothing compared to 2020, when Bolingo lost her beloved father, Mutien, to Covid-19.
“My dad was very sensitive, caring, and a very helpful person,” she says. “I was so sad. It was the hardest period of my life.”
Her father knew little about athletics, but that never stopped him being one of Bolingo’s biggest fans. In her early years she would often question her ability, thinking she was too short or too muscular to be a world-class athlete.
“He said: ‘No, you are a beautiful woman and you are so strong in your sport,’” recalls Bolingo. “He took a big interest and always tried to give me advice.”
Last year she had her big breakthrough, rewriting the Belgian indoor 400m record three times at the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow. In the final she clocked 51.62 to win silver, just one hundredth of a second behind Switzerland’s Lea Sprunger.
Back home, her father was overcome with pride.
“After my medal he said: ‘I told you you would become a big star of athletics!’”
At the beginning of May this year, Mutien became ill and soon found himself in hospital, having tested positive for Covid-19. His condition continued to deteriorate in the days that followed and Bolingo soon received a phone call informing her he didn’t have long left.
“The hospital said you can come to see him and I said okay, but it was so complicated,” she says. “When I was there (I realised): this is the last time I’ll see my dad alive.”
His passing hit Bolingo hard, and for a long time athletics was the last thing she wanted to do.
“I took almost one or two months with nothing – no sport, only my family,” she says. “It was a tragic event for me and my family and it was difficult not to give up. But I was lucky. I was surrounded by my closest friends, my family, and I was not alone. But every single morning I said to God: ‘Why my dad?’”
In time, she found her way back to normality: training, socialising with friends, all the little ways one can move forward after a tragic loss.
By early August, it had been 18 months since her last race, but Bolingo felt ready to get back in the blocks. The majority of that time out had been due to injury.
A few weeks after winning her European medal in Glasgow, Bolingo felt a pain in her Achilles, but it was so slight at the time that she felt safe in continuing to train. A bad idea, in hindsight.
“Month after month it wouldn’t get better and so I called a doctor. It was a big inflammation and the doctor said: ‘If you continue training, it’ll be very hard to come back.’ I took a decision to stop my season.”
Bolingo had been hoping to compete both as an individual and in the 4x400m at the World Championships in Doha, but in August last year she had to finally pull the plug.
“I was so happy after Glasgow, it felt like my career was beginning. I thought: I’ll make the final at the World Championships, and why not top five or top six with my relay team? But after a few months I went down and down and down, then I was at home watching it on TV. I was full of frustration.”
Her coach, Carole Bam, spoke to her on the phone every day and tried to keep her spirits high.
“When we talked it was always: ‘Okay, it’s not good, but if you are positive everything will be alright.’ One day you are very good, another day you’re injured – it’s sport.”
After a six-month rehab, Bolingo started back training last October. “It was so good to be running without pain,” she says. “It had been so long.”
The Tokyo Olympics and European Championships in Paris were the focus of her attention all winter, but when they were both wiped off the calendar Bolingo found it hard to keep up the same intensity.
“After that I said: ‘Why am I training? The big championship is gone.’ But then I (said): ‘I’m an athlete and I have no choice but to train. If I don’t, what else will I do?’”
She continued doing what she could as Belgium went into lockdown, and after a break from training following the death of her father, Bolingo returned early in the summer and began to build up slowly, hoping for some races later in the year.
“I was so tired in my body and mind,” she says. “But it’s important to not give up.”
She started off with a series of 100m and 200m races in August before targeting a 300m in Huizingen. There she smashed the Belgian record of 37.47, which had been held by Sandra Stals since 1999, Bolingo clocking 37.18. A week later she went even quicker, running 36.54 in Heusden.
“I was so happy,” she says. “It was a small victory for me. It was only 300m but it was so good to run a good time for this season. If I am able to run 36 in 300m, I hope this time helps me run a good 400m next year.”
Her goals on the track for 2021 are straightforward.
“I want to get back to my previous level,” she says. “But I’d like to be healthy. If you don’t have health, you can’t do anything.”
As hard as they’ve been, the past 18 months have taught her to take a far more holistic approach, not just in sport but in her approach to life.
“We always say: ‘Tomorrow, in two years, in 10 years, I’ll be with my family, my children,’” she says. “But after the death of my dad and the long injury, now I’d like to be able to live in the moment. It’s the big lesson of my life: to live in this moment.”
Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics