Elizabeth Andiego grew up in Nairobi’s badlands. When she turned up at a boxing training session in the Kenyan capital in 2007, the coach thought she would bail out of a sport still widely seen in the east African country as for men only.
Five years on, Andiego is going toLondon after getting a wild card for the Olympic Games.
Andiego packs a powerful punch and has a fistful of weeks to quicken her footwork.
“The coach thought I was joking around. So he said: ‘If you really want to train, come and train, I won’t stop you,’” she said after a punishing training session. “He thought I would just be there two days and then I would be gone, but I kept on training.”
Andiego, 25, trains with four male boxers in a rundown gymnasium in the Chinese-built Moi International Sports Centre that lies neglected on the city’s northern outskirts.
In a grubby boxing ring she spars with the team’s coach, Patrick Waweru, while the men shadow box against the stop-watch.
Waweru spits out the combinations as Andiego’s hands fly. Beads of sweat sting her eyes as she pummels Waweru’s pads.
“Pah-pah, pah-pah-pah out, pah-pah, pah-pah-pah out,” Waweru says, urging her to keep her hands high and goading her with slaps to the legs to move her feet faster.
In May, Andiego returned dejected from the London qualifiers held in Beijing after failing to win a place.
“I thought my dreams were over when I came back from China and I had lost. From there onwards my morale was down. I didn’t think I had an upcoming tournament,” she said.
However, the judges in Beijing had seen enough.
“Now I am working hard to improve my endurance and speed. Getting that chance to represent in the Olympics is my greatest achievement so far,” she said.
Women’s boxing was a relative unknown in Kenya until a single mother, Conjestina Achieng, nicknamed the “Hands of Stone,” set the ring alight in the mid 2000s, becoming the first African woman to hold an international title.
Kenyan boxers have not stood on the Olympic podium since Robert Wangila Napunyi won gold in the men’s welterweight category in 1988. His compatriot Chris Sande picked up a bronze in the middleweight class at the same Games in Seoul.
Looking to end the drought with Andiego will be 27-year-old flyweight Benson Gicharu, who darts terrier-like around the ring.
“I believe in myself and I believe in God. I think my boxing prowess is a gift from God and it even says so on my gown,” Gicharu said.
However, government support for training facilities is limited.
John Kameta, who heads Kenya’s Amateur Boxing Association, says Kenyan boxing is strapped for cash and wants corporate sponsors to inject money into the sport.
Asked about Kenya’s medal prospects, Kameta said: “That boy is sharp,” referring to Gicharu.
“That girl is good, I’m sure she’s going to shock the world,” he said.