Odile Ahouanwanou: From Benin Footballer To Heptathlon At World Championships

Odile Ahouanwanou is set to be among the contenders for heptathlon gold at the World Athletics Championships this month, but things could have been very different for the reigning African champion.

Football was the 31-year-old’s first love, and she was good enough to play internationally for Benin.

But a lack of investment and support left many players in the West African country frustrated – an all-too-familiar state of affairs in the women’s game across the continent in recent years – and led to her quitting and focusing on athletics instead.

“I started very young with football because I have older brothers, cousins who played. At home we had a big yard, so we would always play football,” she told BBC Sport Africa.

“I was the captain of my club for years. I played for the Benin national team, but I was disappointed with football because of politics in Benin.

“In terms of women’s football, it’s not what I expected. As a result, I had to withdraw a little from professional football.

“I was still playing, but only for fun, and at the same time I was also doing athletics in primary and secondary school. I would often beat everyone but I just couldn’t see myself in athletics – it was all about football.

“Until one day in 2007, I became Benin national champion in the high jump and everything changed.”

Since then, Ahouanwanou has not looked back.

Discovering heptathlon

Odile Ahouanwanou at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Ahouanwanou was fifth after four heptathlon events at Tokyo 2020, but eventually finished 15th

After building some stability in her new sport, it took a lot of convincing from her coach for Ahouanwanou to look at the bigger picture and opt to compete in the heptathlon.

The discipline pits women against each other in seven different track and field events; 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200m, long jump, javelin and finally the 800m.

The points earned in each race, throw and jump are then added up to find the overall winner.

“I discovered the heptathlon through my coach,” she added.

“He told me of the events and I said to myself, when is he going to finish listing them? Because he was going on and on – 100m, high jump, shot put… I said, ‘but when will it stop?’.”

After initial scepticism, Ahouanwanou began to embrace her new-found role.

“Well, I first did high jump, I won, and then I did the heptathlon and I finished third,” she said.

“And after that I got a scholarship that took me to Mauritius where I spent about seven months before the 2012 African Championships in Benin. I finished sixth in that championship and I was so proud because I had just started the event.”

Making African history for Benin

Odile Ahouanwanou at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Ahouanwanou hopes to inspire the next generation of African heptathletes

Opening a new chapter in life has since stretched her physical and mental abilities to the hilt.

Ahouanwanou became the first Beninois to win a gold medal at the African Championships back in 2018, before retaining her title in Mauritius last month.

But despite being a renowned heptathlete on the continent, she still believes there is a lot of room for improvement.

“I think there are a lot of things that I still have to learn because…naturally I’m not athletic,” she admitted.

“I have the body for it, but I had to learn a lot of things in athletics.

“I learned to jog, to stand tall. I learned to have the technique, the necessary gestures. I learned a lot and I continue to learn. I think that’s also my strength. And now, I’m progressing day by day and I’m proud of that.”

A year after conquering the continent for the first time, Ahouanwanou became one of few African heptathletes to finish in the top 10 at a World Athletics Championships.

She was eighth at the Doha Games back in 2019, announcing herself to the world, but she prefers to look back at her success in Asaba, southern Nigeria, four years ago as her best career accomplishment.

“My biggest day I would say was the African Championships.” she said.

“Since 1960, Benin had never had a medal in athletics at the African Championships. When I heard the national anthem in Asaba… the stadium was packed. When you see everyone get up for your country’s national anthem, it gives you goosebumps.”

Inspiring the next generation

Odile Ahouanwanou at the Doha 2019 World Championships
Ahouanwanou finished eighth at the World Championships in Doha in 2019

At the delayed 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Ahouanwanou finished in 15th place, having been fifth after the first four events.

She is now hoping to emulate Ghana’s Margaret Simpson, the only African to earn a heptathlon medal at the World Championships having taken bronze in Helsinki in 2005.

But before that, Ahouanwanou is picking up valuable lessons along the way as she hopes to inspire other young athletes on the continent.

“I learned that I have to be patient,” she said.

“I’ve been hurt, many, many, many times. Several times I wanted to stop. But what made me strong is also my dream, of getting people to know about my country wherever I go.

“I encourage all the girls. Really, if they want to do something… they have to go all out, to give themselves the necessary means. That is to say on the psychological, moral side, to be prepared – because there can be a lot of things that can come up.

“We have the ability. Often it is said that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. No, the woman can do anything now. Women can do anything men do.

“And fortunately, the men understood that too. So, you have to let women blossom.”

A two-time African champion, Ahouanwanou is attracting the spotlight before the World Championships start in Eugene, Oregon, on Friday, 15 July.

Leaving ‘the beautiful game’ in Benin proved to be an inspired decision.

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