Updated 26 August 2007
Gary KIKAYA, Democratic Republic of Congo (400m)
Born: 4 February 1980, Lubumbashi, after Kinshasa, second largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Lives: Raleigh, North Carolina, USA
Manager: Mark Block, Total Sports Management, Inc.
Coach: At the moment, does not have a coach
At the age of 12, Gary Kikaya moved with his family to Johannesburg, South Africa, where his father, a career diplomat, served as the Congolese Ambassador to South Africa. Like most southern African youths, his sporting interests began with rugby and soccer, and he only turned to track as a senior at Queens High School in 1999 after watching the World Cup, in Johannesburg, the year before.
“When I saw the World Cup in South Africa, and saw all these great athletes, I was moved by that, and started taking track more seriously,” Kikaya said. “Watching Michael Johnson, Frankie Fredericks, seeing people running 44 seconds. At that time I thought it was impossible.”
Kikaya began by “doing everything” on the track, from the 100m to the 800m, but eventually began to focus on the sprints. “My talents chose my career for me,” he said. “I just kept on winning races. I didn’t have endurance (for the 800), and didn’t have enough speed for the 100, so I tried the 400.”
When he finished high school, he received a scholarship to Rand Afrikaans University. “Only then did I start to take it seriously. Coming from a family of seven kids, it was good to give my parents a break financially. And also rewarding me for something else. As the second born, I wanted to lead by example for the family.”
Kikaya showed promise with an altitude-aided 46.51 in 2000, and improved to 45.58 a year later. After a year-and-a-half at Rand Afrikaans, a fluke of sorts --“A God’s blessing” Kikaya called it-- brought him to the University of Tennessee for the 2001-02 school year.
“It was strange,” he recalled. A friend had competed at the 2000 World Juniors Championships and was recruited by Tennessee coach Bill Webb. “He gave him a media guide and a business card. When my friend got back, he wasn’t really interested in running track after high school. He wanted to play rugby. So I took the media guide and card, and started making contact with him, and he kept up with my progress. Pretty soon we signed the papers.”
He spent his first six months at Tennessee adjusting to his new environment off the track.
“It was a whole transformation. In terms of thinking, I had to grow up. I was by myself. There was no room for error. So I started taking my running more seriously. At the same time I had the pressure to fit into the society. The first time being in the cold, in the snow. Lots of tough stuff. But those types of situations made me stronger. Just the culture shock, first of all. The running was hard, the academics, the school programme was completely different. I had to do so much in six months.”
In 2002, he also had to adjust to indoor running. After a few 47 second races, he improved to 46.76, then to 46.51 to finish fifth at the highly competitive Southeast Conference (SEC) championships, and again to 45.93 to finish third at the NCAA Indoor Championships. Outdoors, he would be unbeaten over the one-lap distance, improving all the way to 44.53 to win the NCAA title outdoors, with a new national record.
“Every time I ran I was surprised,” he said later that year. “Coming from Africa to the level of competition in America, I improved very fast. I knew I was going to run fast, but under 45 was just unexpected. I was very pleased with that.”
He was equally surprised that his 44.53 held up to be the third fastest in the world that year.
“That was a shocker,” he said with a laugh. “But I believe there are no limits. I’ll just keep pushing my body to run faster.”
He won the 2003 NCAA title indoors with a 45.71 national indoor record, but could not repeat his outdoor triumph, finishing a distant fourth in 45.02. Later that summer, he reached the semi-finals of the World Championships, in Paris, where he clocked a season's best 44.99.
In 2004 he reached his first international success, taking the bronze medal at the World Indoor Championships, in Budapest, clocking 46.30. Outdoors he joined the international circuit for the first time, collecting wins at the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Gateshead, in late June, and in San Sebastian, Spain, in early July, along with a runner-up finish at the Super Grand Prix, in Madrid, where he produced his season's best of 44.80. He also competed in the Olympic Games for the first time, reaching the semi-finals.
Kikaya began the 2005 season with a national record of 20.56 in the 200, and followed up with five wins in six races in the 400, dipping under 45 seconds twice for the first time in his career --44.91 in Heusden and 44.81 at Oslo's Bislett Games, both victories. But again he could not move on from the semi-finals at the World Championships, in Helsinki.
In the meantime, he completed his studies in three years, earning a degree in Sociology with a minor in French.
In 2006, Kikaya finally found the consistency he had been seeking. Skipping the indoor season, he opened outdoors with victories in four of his first five races, and after a fifth place finish at the Gaz de France meeting, in Paris, followed up with a near-PB 44.66 victory in the B race at Rome's Golden Gala, the last time he would be relegated to a B race. After a victory in Madrid's Super Grand Prix, he equalled his 44.53 national record in Stockholm, finishing second to World and Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner. After a brief break, he captured the African title in Mauritius.
“I went there to collect the title and win the first medal for Congo,” he said. “Apart from the war that the Congo is known for, the medal was there for people to focus on something else. So that was good. This medal put me on the map there. And put the government’s attention to support me as a potential medallist in the World Championships or Olympics for Congo.”
Kikaya’s consistency continued. Third in Zurich (44.54), he finished second to Wariner in Brussels (44.62) a week later, before finally bettering his national record, in two consecutive races: 44.46 with a victory in Rieti and at Berlin's ISTAF to 44.43, again finishing second to Wariner. In the German capital, he closed strongly on Wariner, showing that the Olympic champion might finally be vulnerable.
“It shows that nobody’s invincible,” Kikaya said. “That’s the beauty of this sport.”
Kikaya said that his improved consistency is due mainly to the strong strength endurance base he built last fall, and in the fact that he’s finally learning many of the nuances of his event.
“I think I’m slowly but surely beginning to master the 400.” His strength, he said, is in his finish. “Not tying up, and running to the finish relaxed. Equal distribution of energy throughout the race, that’s the key. And that’s what I’m trying to master.”
While he visits only about once a year, mainly during the Christmas holidays when his family gathers for a reunion, his thoughts are never too far from his beleaguered homeland.
“The situation is improving. We’re going through elections now, so there’s hope.”
Kikaya concluded 2006 with a pair of solid performances, finishing second at the IAAF World Athletics Final, in Stuttgart, and the IAAF World Cup, in Athens. In Stuttgart he clocked 44.10 to break the African record of 44.17 set by Nigeria’s Innocent Egbunike 19 years earlier.
In 2007, Kikaya has raced seven times before Osaka, winning in Zalapa, Mexico, in May (44.60A SB), Glasgow (45.25), Eugene (44.93) and Lausanne (45.24). He was second at the FBK Games in Hengelo in late May (44.77) and in Paris (45.32) and fifth in Rome (45.33).
2000 - 46.51A; 2001 - 45.58A; 2002 - 44.53 NR (45.93i); 2003 - 44.99 (45.71i NR); 2004 - 44.80 (46.30i); 2005 - 44.81; 2006 - 44.10 NR; 2007 – 44.60A.
400m: 44.10 (2006); 45.71i
2003 - World Championships - semi finalist
2004 - World Indoor Championships, 3rd ; Olympic Games - semi finalist
2005 - World Championships - semi finalist
2006 - African Championships, 1st
2006 - World Athletics Final, 2nd
2006 - World Cup in Athletics, 2nd
Prepared by Bob Ramsak for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. © IAAF 2007