•Para powerlifter Joyce Njuguna prefers a heavy breakfast of ugali, njahi, cabbages and carrots to accumulate enough strength in the gym
•She has been a sports enthusiast since childhood having played javelin, shot put, discus, javelin, sitting volleyball and canoeing/rowing
•She clinched bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow despite the many challenges she faced leading up to the tournament
A breakfast combo of ugali, njahi (turtle beans), cabbage and carrot is something most ladies would not consider in their diet.
For most, it is considered an 'unfeminine' and heavy meal for breakfast, which just sits in the stomach, running the risk of bloating.
Yet for paralympic powerlifter Joyce Njuguna, this meal is a must-have before she leaves her house for a gym session.
“For me, I do not consider bread and tea as a proper breakfast especially for someone who is a powerlifter. If I eat it, it won't be long before I am feeling hungry and in need of a refill,” Njuguna says.
The 2014 Commonwealth Games bronze medalist says the ugali-njahi combination has worked wonders for her.
“Ugali provides you with enough energy to lift heavy weights and even attempt new levels. The njahi and the veggies stimulate the muscles, strengthening them to withstand the heavy weights. Even after I am done with my gym session, I still feel full and do not need to eat afterwards,” Njuguna says.
She has been hard at work preparing for the Manchester Para Powerlifting Tournament slated for March 25-28.
The tournament is part of a series of qualifying tournaments for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.
Njuguna will be hoping to debut at the grandest stage of them all and go one better than seven years ago, when she secured a bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland.
Her diet has been key to whipping her into shape and building enough strength as she sets her eyes on a place at the Tokyo Paralympics set for August 24-September 5.
So far so good, she says, as she has already lowered her weight from 79kg in January to 76kg.
The maximum number of kilos prescribed for powerlifters at the competition level is often guided by their body weight; the more the body weight, the higher the weight class for a powerlifter.
“I have increased my protein intake while drastically cutting down on carbs. My diet also consists of fish, beetroots and fruits, such as lemon. Not to forget vegetables, which are essential for repairing and replenishing the muscles,” Njuguna says.
During last month's Para Powerlifting trials at the Steel City Gym in Pangani, Nairobi, Njuguna was among athletes who had shown up to battle for tickets to the Para Powerlifting qualifiers set for seven cities across the globe.
One of the issues identified during the trials was lack of fitness among the athletes most of whom had gained weight and were struggling to lift heavy weights, presumably due to year-long inactivity precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Love for sports
Despite her physical limitations, Njuguna is the epitome of Eliud Kipchoge’s slogan ‘no human is limited.’
“Disability is not inability. I believe everyone is talented in his or her own unique way,” she says.
Born 44 years ago, Njuguna is unsure about what caused her disability; but doctors keep diagnosing polio as the cause of her situation.
On the other hand, close family and relatives say it was as a result of an injection gone awry.
Either way, the mother of two is unbothered in her ambition to establish a legacy in para powerlifting.
Her exploits in the sport should not come as a surprise to everyone who has seen her as a young girl at Joytown Primary School in Thika town.
“I have been a sportsperson ever since I could remember. In primary school, I earned a certificate after a stellar show in javelin at the primary school championships,” Njuguna, a saloonist by profession, says.
However, her love for sports was stretched to the limit at Munyu High School where she struggled to compete effectively with the able-bodied competitors.
Unperturbed, Njuguna tried out different disciplines, including sitting volleyball, shot put, discus and rowing/canoeing.
“I had to quit para-rowing in favour of powerlifting because it was tough to juggle between the two disciplines. If you are not careful, you can incur many shoulder injuries and that’s why I opted for powerlifting,” she says.
Glory in Melbourne
As she targets glory at the Tokyo Paralympics, Njuguna looks back to Glasgow and the circumstances under which she clinched third place in the 61kg category.
She had to rely on sheer determination and passion to claim a podium finish as everything else seemed to fall apart.
The snowy Scottish weather was a rude welcome for her — leading to flu — which almost prompted her to drop out of the competition.
“I was feeling sick because of the cold weather. I thought about not competing but decided to participate anyway. I had increased weight slightly probably because of the weather while I had not eaten well for close to two days since I was struggling to adapt to the food,” she recounts.
In the end, Njuguna is thankful she walked into the arena and walked out with a bronze medal around her neck.
She is seeking one last hurrah at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in 2022 as well as the 2023 All Africa Games in Ghana.
“Right now I can bench press 105 kg but I want to increase it to 130kg before the Manchester powerlifting world cup. Last time at para powerlifter trials I could only lift 95kg and so it feels good to see that I am improving,” she says.
The coronavirus pandemic and its knock-on effects have, however, been a cause for worry.
Financially, the virus left a huge dent in her pockets whereas in the gym, she has had to take extra precautions to reduce the risk of an infection.
“As an athlete you cannot miss out on training. Sometimes it has been difficult training without a personal trainer because you need someone to encourage you. Many times I have also had to use a lot of bus fare to go to the gym,” she says.
The small matter of the possible cancellation of the Paralympics also weighs heavily on her mind although Njuguna is optimistic they will proceed as planned.
“Our athletes have been in Dubai for the para athletics qualifiers and this gives me hope that Tokyo will not be cancelled. I would prefer for them to proceed because at the Paralympics, there will be strict health restrictions. Unlike in a training session, there is no one to urge you on at the tournament level,” Njuguna says.
What would really grieve Njuguna is for her to exit the powerlifting scene without passing down her skills, knowledge and experience to upcoming powerlifters.
Her retirement plan is to transition into coaching through which she wants to mould budding talents to surpass her achievements and establish Kenya as a powerhouse.
Already, she has an admirer in her Class Eight daughter, who often accompanies her to training sessions.
“Whenever I go to the gym with her, I can see she has a keen interest in the different weights and equipment. This is unlike my firstborn daughter who is at the university,” she narrates.
With the number of upcoming female powerlifters she has tried to mentor into the sport, Njuguna may well be a mother of many daughters.
Unfortunately, some of them give up after the first day presumably because of the physical exertions of the sport.
“Some of them switch off their phones after the first day so that you cannot reach them. Others give up because they had wanted immediate results rather than being patient and consistent,” she says.
Nonetheless, Njuguna is determined to lend a helping hand to the young ones.
She is in no doubt — just like her —Kenya is a hotbed of talent in powerlifting.
Njuguna is not only satisfied with a legacy as one of the world’s best powerlifters but also as a potter moulding the talents of upcoming para-athletes.
Name: Joyce Njuguna
Family: Two daughters
Profession: salonist (for the last 21 years)
Schools attended: Joytown Primary School; Munyu High School
Sports: shot put, discus, sitting volleyball, javelin, rowing/canoeing and powerlifting
Title(s): Bronze medal at 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow