Olympics-returnee Nachula reveals struggles switching from athletics to football

The Zambia international is set to make a return to the Games as a footballer, 13 years after competing as a runner in Beijing

Rachael Nachula has opened up on her personal struggle when she decided to dump athletics for football, saying “it wasn’t easy” for her.

The Zambian had reached the peak of her career as a runner when she competed as a 400m semi-finalist at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

Some 13 years after her Olympic debut, Nachula will be making her return to the global showpiece at Tokyo 2021, this time as a footballer.

Having helped her country to a first-ever Olympic qualification last March, the striker has shared her excitement about the prospect of her possible return for the Games later this year.

“I think immediately when I step in Tokyo everybody will be like, ‘Ah now we have Nachula here, from the 2008 Olympics she comes in 2021, not as a 400m runner but a striker,’ which is good for me,” she told Olympic channel.

At 13, the loss of her father as a young girl saw her struggles in life just getting started, with the development halting her education.

Having been forced out of school as a teenager, she found solace in football before the death of her mother four years later.

Following parents’ passing, she recalled her foray into athletics while honing her football skills in the quest to earn a living through sports.
She went on to shine in the 2005 Southern Africa Regional Championships in Harare, where she won two individual events –  200m and 400m – and also inspired Zambia’s 4x400m team to gold.

“When my mum passed on in December 2003, it wasn’t easy. I decided I must do something,” she reflected. 

“I then joined sport out of the need to earn an income. Athletics coach Hanson Mushili had come to watch football at the complex where I played, and he saw how I was moving speedily and running around.

“After the game, he approached me and told me, that he could help me, train, and live a better life as a runner.

“After a few months I went to a local competition, my first, and I won. After that, I stayed in athletics. The Southern region competition was what cemented my life as a sprinter.”

Before quitting athletics, the Zambian ran in two Commonwealth Games (2006 and 2010), in the Beijing 2008 Olympics and two senior World Athletics Championships in Berlin (2009) and Daegu (2011).

“I moved to South Africa [at the High-Performance Centre in Pretoria] after earning an IOC scholarship and continued training and competing until I qualified for the Olympics,” she revealed.

“That was a great day! Each athlete wants to qualify for the Olympics. I ran 51.25 and achieved the A standard, and I had also attained the B standard of 52.21.

“I was happy to be part of the Olympics and to run with top athletes like Sanya Richards, Allyson Felix. It was amazing!”

Since switching to football, Nachula claimed the golden boot at the 2019 Cosafa Women’s Cup, scoring 10 goals as Zambia reached the final for the first time before they bowed to South Africa. 

And she opened up on her rough journey to reactivating her career in a sport that she described as her first love.

“I tried to recover my form but struggled. I reasoned it’s not too late, I can still do something else,” she disclosed.

“I switched quite late, but it was easy to go back as I had played football before. I have one advantage. I used my speed from track on the football pitch. 

“When they give me the ball, I run quickly and get the ball. I went back to football in 2014 and my first international game for Copper Queens was in 2017.

“When one door closes another opens, don’t keep looking at the closed door. We can also manage to develop another talent. But I am still trying to figure out which is my God-given talent.”

On the strength of her fine form at Cosafa 2019 as well as her crucial role in the Copper Queens’ triumph in the race for an Olympic ticket, Nachula earned her first professional contract with Zaragoza.

While savouring her consistent rise in football following her move to Spain at 34, the striker is also eager to taste another Olympic experience with Zambia this summer.

“I never had it in mind that I would play professional football now, it was just God’s favour. I have so far played four games and have three goals,” she admitted.

“I think the performance at Cosafa in 2019 opened all doors for me. I have followed the steps of our captain Barbra Banda.

“She showed what she can do for Copper Queens and we are following in her footsteps.

“Some of them have asked me how it feels to be at the Olympics, to participate. I told them that being at the Olympics. It’s very motivating. 

“All the top athletes in the world dream of the Olympics. For us as Copper Queens to go there for the first time, it’s a huge plus for us.”

“I think I am one of [a few] Africans who has been there as a track and field athlete and this time around I am going there with a different sport.”

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