Agony and heartache are the fuel for Ta Lou in her journey to sprint-royalty  

It felt like a throwback to darker days when Marie Josee Ta Lou, wan and downcast, finished seventh in the final of the world athletics championships in Eugene in 2022. For the last five years, the Ivorian had made a habit of being a bone in the throat of the Jamaicans in major finals. This time though, she faded into oblivion. The tag nearly woman followed suit, and it stuck, mainly because she couldn’t shake off the might of the likes of Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Elaine Thompson-Herah when it matters most. 

Marie-Josee TaLou, photo courtesy of AfricaTopSports.com

So, when she blasted to a season’s best of 10.78s in Clermont, Florida, last Sunday, Ta Lou’s feat wasn’t immediately out in the news.  She doesn’t enjoy the sort of allure and media appeal that follows the likes of Fraser-Pryce and, more recently Sha’Carri Richardson. Expectedly so, considering she just goes about delivering the goods when it matters most. The time, though, shot her to number two in this year’s ranking in the women’s 100, forcing the stakeholders to take her seriously. 

Not that she’s entirely seen as an afterthought, but for an athlete that boasts the collections of laurels bagged in her kitty, there should be a level of respect that comes with it. Multiple African Champion, two-time silver medallist in the world championships, multiple wins in the Diamond League circuit, and a Personal Best of 10.72s- a time that puts her joint seventh of all time. 

Marie-Jose TaLou, from FB page of Hamed Bakayoko

Not that it’s about the numbers; Ta Lou is almost the anti-stat, the runner who can’t be measured or so easily deciphered. Agony and injuries in her thirteen-year journey are what make her story all the more riveting. The behind-the-scenes struggle from her Personal life to injuries on the track has molded her into the freak of an athlete that she is. 

The truth is, at first glance, Ta Lou doesn’t look like a great athlete. She didn’t bag all the big endorsement deals nor hug the headlines when things did or didn’t go her way. But her running did when it was supposed to. And when she was supposed to retreat and reflect, it did that too. 

Due to the lack of structure in her home country Cote D’ Ivoire, her route to the top has been unconventional. Ta Lou didn’t get the chance to race as a Youth or Junior athlete. How can she when she was still trying to convince her mother to allow her to run while in her late teens? They met in the middle, and she was sent on a scholarship to China to study medicine on a four-year scholarship. 

Marie-Josee TaLou, photo by BBC Africa

“After graduating from high school, I started studying medicine at university to fulfill my mother’s wish, but at the end of the 2013 season, I could not balance studies and sports,” said Ta Lou. “I had difficulties in passing some of my exams and faced the risk of losing the scholarship. My results at the 2012 African Championships made me realize that I had the potential to become an elite sprinter, but things did not work out for me. I could no longer stay in China, so I decided to return to Ivory Coast.”

On returning to Ivory Coast to pursue her athletics career fully, she teamed up with the Head Coach of the West African IAAF High-Performance Training Centres in Lome and Dakar, Anthony Koffi. He is the man that made Ta Lou into the refined athlete that she is. Koffi turned her from a B-minus athlete to an A-plus sprinter. The results became glaring. On the African Continent, she ruffled feathers with the likes of Blessing Okagbare and teammate Murielle Ahouré.

Marie-Jose Ta Lou, Tori Bowie, Dafne Schippers, 100 meters, London 2017, from World Athletics

Ta Lou beat them resoundingly and snagged the African Record from their hands too. 2017 was the year she had a tilt with global domination, but that also came at a cost. She narrowly lost out to Fraser-Pryce in the final of the world championships in London as he picked silver. The Ivorian sprinter also finished fourth in the 200m, breaking Ahoure’s national record by 0.03 with 22.21. Missing the medal in the 100m gave her a bitter-sweet feeling.

“Reaching the final was already something big. “Not everybody gets there, but it was painful to miss the medal by a very close margin. I started my preparation in January 2017 after some injury and personal problems,” said Ta Lou in 2017. 

Happy to be back on my feet after my ankle injury. I continue to trust GOD, my coach, my medical team and most definitely be patient. pic.twitter.com/fKhhlfAD9H

— TA LOU Marie Josée (@majotalou) May 15, 2023

Last year too, was filled with injuries. Most people were surprised she made the final of the world championships. She struggles with an inflammation on her shoulder for a large part of 2022 and just made it in time for the Championships. The journey was part of the story for her, and as we saw two months later, she broke lowered her own African Record to 10.72s at the Diamond League in Monaco. 

Earlier this year, her coach Koffi passed away after a brief illness, and it felt like it would make her downbeat. But for an athlete that has become used to facing adversities, it seemed it only serves as fuel for better results. Sunday’s results speak volumes on what to expect from the diminutive Ivorian this year.

 

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