When Gambian sprinter Gina Bass finished sixth in the200m at the World Championships last month, she didn’t win any medals, yet an entire continent was proud of her.
Bass was also making headlines in her West African nation as the first Gambian athlete to have reached the final of a world championship event. In fact, she had already broken all records in athletics in the Gambia at that point.
It was the close of an excellent season for the sprinter which had seen her win a gold medal at the African Games in Rabat, Morocco, and set two national records.
Born on 5 May, 1995 in Toubacouta, an arrondisement in the Fatick Region of Senegal, Bass grew up with one sister and two brothers. Her talent was noticed at an early age in school competitions.
“I started running when I was at primary school when we used to do regional championships,” says Bass. “I continued to run in junior and senior school and that is where one of the coaches saw something in me and began encouraging me to the point where I am today.”
By 15, she had achieved the qualifying standards for the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, but was too young to compete as the games were open to athlete born between the 1s January 1993 and the 31 December 1994.
“When they said I was too young, I was never discouraged. I still continued pushing harder.”
In September 2011, she was at the Douglas Commonwealth Youth Games where she missed the final of the 100m after finishing fifth in her semi-final in 12.24. It was her best performance that year – she had failed to make it past the heats of the 100m during the IAAF World Youth Championships in Lille, France earlier in July.
Over the next four years, Bass transitioned into the senior category without any major accomplishments even with an appearance at the 2015 African Games were she finished 13th in both the 100 and 200m.
By this time, she was looking up to three women conquering the sprints world – Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and the Ivorians Murielle Ahoure and Marie-Josée Ta Lou.
It was also during that time that she discovered that people she had called her parents her whole life, were not her biological father and mother but relatives who were financially more comfortable.
The following year in Durban during the African Championships, she contested both the 100m and 200m. When she failed to make the final of the shorter sprint, it was looking as though she might leave the competition empty-handed. But then three days after her semi-final exit from the 100m, she won her first medal for the Gambia at a major international competition.
She clocked a 22.92 national record, 0.11 behind the winner Ta Lou, one of her role models. It was also the first time the Gambia had won a medal at the African championships.
“It was exciting,” says Bass,” and I was really happy about it and thankful to God.”
She began to train at the IAAF High Performance Training Centre in Dakar alongside Ta Lou, thanks to a scholarship from the Gambian Olympic and Sports Committee.
At 21, she became the first woman athlete from The Gambia to qualify for the Olympic Games, even though she never made it past the heats in Rio 2016.
But that was followed by 100m gold and 200m silver at the Islamic Solidarity Games in Baku the next year. However, she had qualified only for 200m at the London World Championships and finished 31st in the heats. At the 2018 Commonwealth Games, she only got to the semi-finals of both the 100m and 200m. That same year, she was 8thin the 100m at the African championships in Asaba and in the 200, missed bronze by .02 seconds behind Ghana’s Janet Amponsah.
In 2019, the Frenchman Smail Alain began coaching Bass in Dakar. By the time the African Games came around in August, she was on the verge of making history.
In the 100m in Rabat, she ran 11.13, a national record, only .04 behind the champion Ta Lou. Three days later she did even better, beating Ta Lou in 22.58 to collect an upset victory and breaking her own national record.
“I enjoyed running against (Ta Lou) and it was my dream to beat my role model,” Bass said, “but I still don’t run her time.”
Her performance in Rabat also qualified her for the Doha World Championships in both the 100m and 200m, another first for her country. She didn’t advance from the 100m semis but did in the 200m.
“I am happy with my performance but it was really hard because my body was tired after a long season,” she said. “I hope I can rest and prepare for next season and for Tokyo 2020.”
Bass remains grateful for the love and support she has received from Gambians who consider her a hero. She also has words of encouragement for other young athletes looking up to her like a role model.
“It is not easy, it is all about training. If you believe in yourself, never be discouraged.”
Meanwhile, she is looking further than the next Olympic Games.
“My plans for the future are to continue my education. Also, I want to break the world record for 200m.”
Helen Ngoh for iaaf