This site uses cookies to improve your experience and to provide services and advertising. By continuing to browse, you agree to the use of cookies described in our Cookies Policy. You may change your settings at any time but this may impact on the functionality of the site. To learn more see our Cookies Policy.
Dublin: 7 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019

'My Dad has always said, 'this is the land my children are going to prosper in''

After a stunning breakthrough year in 2018, Patience Jumbo-Gula is one of Ireland’s most exciting young track and field athletes.

THERE IS SOMETHING charmingly infectious about Patience Jumbo-Gula. If it’s not her beaming smile, it’s almost certainly an unbreakable personality. Positive and happy, the type that radiates, and captures, a room. It could also be the innocence of youth. 

This is all still quite new for the 17-year-old, one of Ireland’s most exciting young track and field athletes. She hasn’t done many interviews, nor has she been exposed to much publicity. But Jumbo-Gula takes it all in her stride. Much like everything she does.

1635132 Patience Jumbo-Gula in Dublin this week. Source: Sportsfile

She laughs and giggles her way through, yet there is a maturity beyond her years too. Articulate and intelligent, the teenager possesses a sharp sense of perspective and, through a strong support network at home, has both feet firmly on the ground.

“It’s weird,” she says of being in the limelight. “But it’s fun at the same time. It kind of just motivates you, to keep going and to do better.”

Kitted head-to-toe in Under Armour apparel, it doesn’t take long in the teenager’s company to appreciate her appeal. Part of a new wave of athletes, Jumbo-Gula provided a sweet taste of this next generation’s potential during a glorious summer for Irish athletics in 2018.

At just 16, the sprinter made a name for herself when winning 100m bronze at the European Youth Olympics in July 2017, and then laid down a further marker of her prodigious talent at the European U18 Championships in Gyor last July.

By running a new championship record of 11.59 in a blistering semi-final performance, Jumbo-Gula underlined why there is so much excitement over her nascent sprinting career, even if a poor start in the final cost her a medal. 

While heartbroken with a fifth-place finish at the time, that day is now viewed in the greater context of her development as an athlete, but just as importantly, as a person. Jumbo-Gala will have gained hugely from the experience and her mistakes in that race. 

“Maybe the pressure got to me,” she considers. “I started to overthink it. I felt in the heat and semi-final I was really relaxed but in the final I just froze. I realised I messed up and looking at the board, I knew I was fourth or fifth. My heart kind of broke but then I just smiled.

It wasn’t my best performance, but my Dad is always there. He just said ‘today isn’t our day, but the next one will be’. He just told me to stay strong, and don’t lose faith. My Dad always says every disappointment is a blessing, so you learn. He made me cry a bit after the race but it helped.

Paul Jumbo-Gula is here today, as he is at all of his daughter’s races and training sessions. A constant presence, but out of the way, in the background. He sits in another room, patiently waiting to drive Patience back home to Dundalk once the media event is finished. 

“My Dad takes me everywhere.”

Even on a Tuesday evening for training in Tallaght, or Newry after school on a Thursday for another track session. He sits in the car, Patience trains and they drive home then. Wednesday is her — Wednesday is their — only day off. 

Paul Jumbo-Gula would do anything for his daughter, because he doesn’t want any of his children to go without the opportunities — academic or sporting — he was deprived of growing up in Nigeria.

Seven years ago, he stood watching Patience storm to victory in a school sports day race when a coach from Dundalk St Gerard’s AC turned to him — unaware it was the girl’s father — and remarked ‘Wow, she’s fast.’ That’s when this remarkable journey started.

Patience Jumbo-Gula on her way to finishing fifth In action at the European U18 Championships last summer. Source: Sasa Pahic Szabo/INPHO

“My Mum said she was sporty but I don’t see where that was,” Jumbo-Gula laughs. “My Dad, yeah, he was really sporty. He used to do long jump, high jump and sprinting.

“He has been such a big influence on me. He’s always said to me that he doesn’t want me to miss the opportunities he didn’t have back home in Africa. That’s why he takes me places.

“He was very sporty but didn’t have the opportunity because back then in Nigeria, it wasn’t the best. Nobody really cared about sport where he grew up. I remember he said ‘this is the land my children are going to prosper in’. He often says that. I think he’d do anything for us, yeah. He doesn’t want us to lose hope.”

Jumbo-Gula has two younger brothers, 13 and three, and a younger sister, who is 16. Her parents moved to Ireland from Lagos around 1998, although she’s not quite sure of the exact year. After a short period in Dublin, they headed north and settled in Dundalk and have been there ever since. It’s a sports-mad house.

“My brother plays everything. Soccer, Gaelic football, basketball. My other brother is a bit young but he tries to be like him too. My sister used to do athletics but she doesn’t compete anymore. She’s really smart so likes school better now.”

The St Vincent’s Dundalk student first represented Ireland at the Celtic Games in 2014, at which point she started to realise ‘I could do something special’ and progressed to those Youth Olympic Games two summers ago, coming home with a brilliant bronze. 

It got even better last year. Despite disappointment in her individual event in Gyor, the teenager was then part of the 4x100m relay team who won silver at the World U20 Championships in Tampere, Finland. It was one of the Irish sporting stories of 2018. 

“Yeah, it has really motivated me heading into this year,” she explains. “My friends are not into athletics so they went crazy when we won the medal. I didn’t send them the link to watch it when I was competing but they got it somewhere, and they sent a video on Snapchat and I was like ‘oh my God’. It was so cute and motivating.

“And then back in school, there were a couple of homecomings. Is that what they’re called? I was just standing there, and there are 900 students in my school so it was crazy.”

Talent, hard work and determination, Jumbo-Gula is aware of the sacrifices demanded by greatness. This year, more than most, is testing that resolve, however. 

With her Leaving Certificate fast approaching, including mock exams in a fortnight, time management has become an even more essential part of the teenager’s week as she looks to strike the right balance between training and study without compromising either. It’s not easy.

“I try and listen as much as I can in class!”

Patience Jumbo-Gula, Gina Akpe-Moses, Ciara Neville, Molly Scott Jumbo-Gula, Gina Akpe-Moses, Ciara Neville and Molly Scott with their World U20 relay medals. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

A new gym facility in Dundalk has eased the headache somewhat. She goes there after school on a Monday and Friday, meets up with her training group at Tallaght AC every Tuesday and Saturday for a two-and-a-half-hour track session, and also runs on her own in Newry after school on a Thursday. Time is very much at a premium.

Jumbo-Gula has already noticed the benefit of training under the guidance of Athletics Ireland’s national sprints co-ordinator, Daniel Kilgallion, in Tallaght twice a week — but that does mean a lot of time is spent in the car with Dad, Paul, commuting up and down. 

“It’s the first time I’ve had a proper coach,” she explains. “But it is tiring, especially on Tuesdays as in school I have double maths, double biology and double French. In the car, I just sleep and then wake up for training. Sometimes I feel down, because of the Leaving Cert, I’m just tired as we don’t get home until 10.30/11pm.”

Aware that Sixth Year is all about the Leaving Cert, Jumbo-Gula admits the exams can’t be over quickly enough but remains highly motivated to get the results she wants in order to gain an athletics scholarship into UCD — she has no desire to go to America. 

At the moment, one of her main focuses is on completing the Leaving Cert art project, for which the theme this year is ‘balance’, allowing Jumbo-Gula to use the achievements of last summer to illustrate the importance of it. 

I don’t know if I can say this, but I’ve got my medal in my school bag as I need to bring it in every day to work on it in art class. I’m doing mine on the medal and what it represents. It’s cool.

In the short-term, Jumbo-Gula’s focus is on continuing her seamless progress from year to year, building on her encouraging performances in 2019, starting with the Irish Life Health U20 and U23 Indoor Championships in Athlone on Sunday. 

Jumbo-Gula will race in the women’s U20 60 metres event as she looks to fine-tune her winter speed ahead of a potential qualifying time for the European Indoor Championships in Glasgow in early March, and then the primary meet of her year — the European U20 Championships in Sweden this summer. 

“The big goal is the European U20s. Hopefully, I qualify and then make the final, but just to perform well and we’ll see what happens.  I don’t want to overthink it and start to panic, I want to just go with the flow. Just stay relaxed because when I do that, I perform well and smile more.

1635154 Jumbo-Gula at the Irish Life/Athletics Ireland sponsorship announcement this week. Source: Sportsfile

“I think I do put pressure on myself. I thought people put pressure on me at U18s but they were just trying to motivate me. I took it as pressure and started to overthink it — ‘what if I don’t get a good start or what if I don’t medal?’ That’s what got to me, and I learned from that.

“I’m so lucky my parents are so supportive. My Dad, he’s such a good motivator. If a race doesn’t go to plan, he’s always there to tell me not to worry, we’ll come back stronger. And that’s what I took from last year.”

The obvious target for Jumbo-Gula is the Olympic Games, but for now, it’s about continuing along the same road of improvement, while enjoying the experience and using every day as a learning opportunity.

Win or lose, medal or not, Jumbo-Gula will always be smiling at the end of it.  

“Everyone wants to make the Olympics, that’s what I want to do,” she adds. “But it’s important for me just to enjoy the experience. I want to be competitive but smile, enjoy it and not let the pressure get to me.

“Remain humble as well. You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so it’s important to be humble. That’s something my Dad always says.”

Subscribe to our new podcast, The42 Rugby Weekly, here:

  • Share on Facebook
  • Email this article

About the author:

Ryan Bailey

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel