By Dan Plouffe
Students taking a detour on the way back to class from the bathroom is often cause for detention. For Beni Nkongolo, it was the recipe for OFSAA gold.
“I saw the Grade 7 students doing high jump and I was like, ‘Oh, wait, I remember doing high jump in South Africa,’” recounts Nkongolo, who was in Grade 9 gym class at the time. “So I asked the coaches if I could try and they said sure. And I jumped 1.60, so the coaches were like, ‘Oh, you’re good. Can you join our team?’”
That was the first time Nkongolo heard there was a track and field team at Immaculata Catholic High School. Nkongolo said he didn’t have money to pay team fees, but the coaches said they’d cover it, and a month into the Saints’ season, he joined in.
Nkongolo then went on to win every event he entered from that point on, including the novice boys’ gold medal on Saturday at the OFSAA high school provincial championships in Ottawa.
“It was an incredible, incredible thing to see for a really young kid who’s got a great future ahead of him,” states Immaculata track-and-field head coach Joey Ozamiz. “The magnitude of OFSAA gold – I don’t quite think he quite understands what he’s done yet. I think he’s just happy to jump and be outside and get a couple days off school.”
Nkongolo moved to Canada from South Africa a year and a half ago with his older brother and his mom, who wanted to move her kids to a safer country. He arrived in the dead of his first Canadian winter.
“It’s very different,” Nkongolo euphemizes. “South Africa is like the polar opposite. It’s always hot. So when I came here, I was kind of freezing. But I got used to it quickly.”
Nkongolo started high jumping in Grade 4. He had several coaches, but his third taught him proper technique and coached him for the longest period of time. Athletics is very popular in South Africa, he notes, but Canadian track and field has its advantages.
“Everything’s so fancy,” he highlights. “They have so many rules and everything, and the equipment’s top notch. In South Africa, we didn’t really have much of that, so it’s definitely a better experience, more enjoyable.”
Shari Orders was working as an official at Nkongolo’s first invitational meet and immediately saw his potential.
“The first time I saw him jump, I think my jaw hit the ground,” recalls Orders, Canada’s 1986 national high jump champion. “I just thought, ‘who is this kid?’”
Orders facilitates a weekly group for high school students who want to learn high jump at Terry Fox Athletic Facility, so she invited Nkongolo to join them.
Nkongolo frequently takes OC Transpo – 45 minutes to Immaculata from home near Montreal Road each way, every day – so he jumped on the bus marked Terry Fox for his first practice, but instead ended up in a suburban parking lot in Kanata (at Terry Fox Station).
He got to the right spot the next week though, and in the blink of an eye, he was the national capital east conference and city champion, clearing 1.80 metres at the latter meet. Nkongolo then jumped 1.75 m to win the OFSAA east regionals and qualify for the June 8-10 provincials at Terry Fox.
Entering OFSAA, Nkongolo knew all the top competitors had jumped around the same height to qualify, so everyone wanted to do their best to avoid missing any lower heights in case that could serve as a tiebreaker.
He stuttered a little on the approach for his first few jumps, but shook off the nerves and cleared 1.50, 1.55, 1.60, 1.65 and 1.70 on his first attempt each time. Nkongolo missed 1.75 on his first try, but then made it the next time, and suddenly he and Markham’s Birenavan Balaramana were the only athletes left in the competition.
Prior to the event, Orders had given Nkongolo Spiderman tape (he’s a big comics fan) and told him he needed to channel his inner Spiderman for the competition. Before attempting 1.80, Nkongolo rubbed the tape on his shorts for good luck and soared over the bar on his first try.
Balaramana made it too, but only on his second attempt, and after both athletes missed at 1.83, Nkongolo was declared the winner because he’d had one less failed attempt in total.
“I didn’t know for sure, so when they told me is when I started properly celebrating,” details Nkongolo, who hadn’t expected to win. “I never thought I’d be here. But I’m so happy.
“And I get a sandwich finally. I got told if I win, I get a sandwich from like four different people, so I get four sandwiches.
“I also got offered (an OFSAA) sweater, but I think I’m going to try to trade the sweater for two sandwiches.”
Orders has barely been working with Nkongolo for a month, but she says the biggest highlight is how much fun it’s been.
“I love how he has fun at competitions,” she indicates. “He makes friends with everybody. He’s encouraging. And he gets the job done when he has to.”
Nkongolo’s family couldn’t be at the track to watch his triumph because they were working. While that would be disappointing for most, Nkongolo considers that a victory too. He says the most challenging part since his family moved to Ottawa has been getting work permits for his mom and his brother.
“That took a while, but they got it eventually. Now I’m so happy for them,” underlines Nkongolo, whose mom works as a receptionist and party planner, while his brother who’s in Grade 12 is doing casual work where he can.
“My mom will be very happy,” he adds. “When I came to Canada, I wasn’t really doing sports, so she got super mad at me because she said I wasn’t being athletic enough. So when she heard I was in high jump, she was super happy. When she hears that I won, I’m sure it’s probably going to be the top of her day.”
Ashley Stoyanovich, the jumps coach at Immaculata, says it’s especially exciting to see a student who’s just getting by excel like Nkongolo has.
“The heart and passion that he has is everything,” explains Stoyanovich, a former Western University pole vaulter. “That’s going to carry him through with all of his life challenges.”
Nkongolo thanked all the “super nice” people who have helped him get into track and field.
Among them are Debbie Tracey, another veteran coach at Immaculata, and St. Paul teacher/Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club program director Zach Quevillon, who worked with Orders to get Nkongolo size 14 track spikes to wear instead of his running shoes.
“It really takes a village,” Ozamiz underlines. “First of all, you have to have the talent, but then you’ve just got to have the opportunity. And it’s so nice to see everyone in the community give these kids that opportunity.”
Nkongolo’s support team will be encouraging him to continue training and competing this summer, whether it’s at Lions twilight events or bigger meets.
“There’s so much more. (At OFSAA), he jumped well, but he can jump higher,” Orders notes. “There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind this is just the beginning.”
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