Chad's top runner longs to run for Canada

Kaltouma Nadjina travelled a long road to reach the starting line of the recent world indoor track and field championships in Lisbon.

But the trials the 23-year-old native of the African country of Chad has endured may pale compared to the lengthy bureaucratic maze that awaits her as she attempts to attain Canadian citizenship next year.

The 400-metre specialist finished fourth at the world indoors in Lisbon earlier this month and is a lock to compete for Chad again at the world track and field championships of Athletics later this summer in Edmonton.

But her heart is in Canada, where she's lived for the year, first in Vancouver, and for the past three months in Calgary, in a spare room in the home of coach John Cannon.

"My dream is to run for Canada," said Nadjina. "I'm training hard, and I really want to get on the team. I'd like to make it for the Commonwealth Games for 2002, but I think it won't be easy, I think to do that, you would have to have somebody help you."

Nadjina is doing her part. At an indoor meet in Edmonton in February, she posted the fastest 300m ever run by a woman on Canadian soil, breaking Jillian Richardson-Briscoe's record with a 37.14-second clocking.

The time qualified her to compete at the world indoors, but even gaining entry to the worlds didn't come easy -- it took repeated attempts by Cannon to get the attention of track officials in Chad. Finally, he received word that she could race.

"The best indication of how good she can be is what she did in that 300m," said Cannon, who coached Richardson-Briscoe to a fifth-place finish in the 400m at the '92 Barcelona Olympics.

"She hasn't even really been tested yet."

For the past five years, Nadjina has played the role of global vagabond, travelling under the International Olympic Committee banner, her expenses covered by an IOC scholarship awarded to athletes from underdeveloped countries.

She was awarded the scholarship in 1996 after qualifying for the 400-metre final at the All-Africa Games in Zimbabwe, while still a junior. The IOC dispatched her to Savannah, Ga., after the Atlanta Olympics to train, and after two years in Georgia, Nadjina was moved again to Vancouver, where she prepared for the Sydney Olympics.

The only woman on her country's Olympic team, she carried its flag in the opening ceremonies, and went on to run in the 400m semifinals.

This year, though, Nadjina lost her IOC funding, when she refused to move, once again, this time, to a training base in Senegal.

With no money and no job, a chance meeting with Cannon in Sydney gave the runner all the impetus to move to the Alberta city.

"I didn't have family in Canada, I didn't want to stay in Vancouver, I couldn't work, I didn't have money, no place to stay," said Nadjina. "So I call him one day, and he say, 'How soon can you get here? Pack your bags and come."'

Nadjina has flourished in Calgary. And Cannon would like to keep her there.

She needs to get her visa extended, which expires in April, and Cannon is hoping to corner IOC officials in Lisbon to discuss renewing Nadjina's scholarship.

"First thing is to make a big performance in the worlds," said Cannon. "Second thing is to extend her visa, and the third thing is to get ready for world outdoors.

"And we're trying to get her that IOC scholarship back," he added. "If we can meet with the IOC people face-to-face, it's better than sending e-mails back and forth. And especially if she gets a good result, I think they'll be more tolerant of letting her train in another place."

Nadjina's best time in the 400m is 51.90, which would put her at the top of the Canadian rankings. But Cannon feels she's a good bet to break the 50-second barrier -- the Canadian record of 49.91 is jointly held by Richardson-Briscoe and Marita Payne.

"When we met, John said, 'You can run 49 any day.' People tell me that all the time, and I didn't believe it, but I believed him," said Nadjina. "Now, I'm having feelings I'm going to run fast, the training is very good, it's different than all the programs I've done before."

Ranked 15th in the world in the 400m, Nadjina holds out much hope for representing Canada in the future.

Returning to Chad is not an option.

"If I have to go back, my life would be over," said Nadjina, who left behind her father, and his two wives, three daughters and three sons. "In Chad, women just don't do sports."

However, rules state a runner must sit out international competition for one year before competing for another country. That means Nadjina has to choose between starting the process now and skipping this summer's world championships, or running in Edmonton and delaying her Canadian citizenship even more.

To Cannon, the choice is obvious.

"Right now, we're pursuing her running fast," he said. "With the worlds, this isn't the year to pursue (citizenship). She'd like to run for Canada but it's a ways off. We'll take care of it when the time comes."

By Lori Ewing