Running an African team brings many challenges, something that Kimberly Coats, Team Africa Rising’s Director of Marketing and Logistics knows all too well.
In July and August, Team Africa Rising held a women’s cycling camp at the Africa Rising Cycling Centre in Rwanda. Kimberly invited women from Rwanda, Eritrea and Ethiopia all in hopes of launching the first ever all African women’s professional team. During the month of the camp, an invitation for a guest rider for the Green Mountain Stage Race came from the Amy D. Foundation racing team. Amy D. Foundation’s mission is to assist in the development of cycling for women. Inviting an African rider was a great opportunity for both organisations to be true to their missions.
Kimberly Coats selected Yohana Dawit, the Eritrean National Champion. On September 2 Kimberly, brought Yohana over to America. Having never left Africa, this was a huge step for the 23 year old and Kimberly remained wary of the risks involved. Cyclists from Eritrea have defected in the past.
She said: “I had told everybody the potential situation of having a rider with us from Eritrea, there is always a potential for defection due to the situation in their country. I always think of the worst case scenario, and was always conscious of where she is and who she is talking to. The people that we were with weren’t used to that situation, they hadn’t lived the life we have lived with African cyclists.”
Just before the final stage, Kimberly left Yohana and the team with their soigneur so she could give the race commentator some information about having an Eritrean rider on the team. Upon her return she discovered that the team were not at base, and the riders had gone to walk the course.
“When the girls came back and Yohana wasn’t with them, I knew she had done it. The team said that she wanted to walk up one more street to see more of the course, but I knew she’d gone.”
Kimberly treated the situation as worst case scenario, so she informed the police and Yohana’s photo was published on the news. The whole team searched the area up until the start but the race went on, with no Yohana.
“I called all of the Eritrean contacts I had, everyone was in shock. I knew the chances of us finding her were slim to none, she had somehow planned this and someone had picked her up.”
After a 20 hour wait Kimberly finally received a call from an Eritrean cyclist that was at the race who told her that Yohana had been found and was with her cousin.
“Her cousin was born and raised in the US and didn’t speak her language, so I have no idea how he had become involved. He told me he was called by somebody to go and pick her up.”
Yohana’s cousin soon realised who she was and why she was there. Kimberly began liaising with her cousin to try to persuade Yohana to return so they could inform the federation, resolve the situation and fly her home to Eritrea.
The next evening, Yohana arrived in New Hampshire and the two flew to Las Vegas, Kimberly’s base in the US. The Eritrean Cycling Federation were informed and Kimberly began discussing options with Yohana.
“Her concern was that if she went back, there would be repercussions from the cycling federation and the government, which wasn’t going to be the case. This had happened before with another cyclist whilst she was in South Africa and there were no consequences for the rider when she returned home, so she knew there would be none for her”.
Kimberly’s biggest concern was how Yohana’s decision would affect the future of Team Africa Rising.
“My biggest fear was that if she didn’t return to Eritrea, how was it going to affect the opportunities for the other women. The whole team could have dismantled before we’d even started. I was also concerned how this might be viewed by supporters and potential sponsors.”
After contacting the US Embassy in Eritrea Kimberly was told that each athlete was evaluated individually and that there was no need for concern. If it continued to happen then they would reassess and look at the bigger picture.
After days spent talking with Yohana, she made the decision to stay in the US. This meant that her cycling career was over and the Eritrean National Champion was never going to rider for Team Africa Rising again.
“I did everything humanly possible to make sure that she could represent her country and be a professional cyclist but she made the choice not to. I don’t think it was a government issue, I think it was something more personal that we may never know.”
There are many challenges facing women in Eritrea and often families put pressure on relatives to bring in income. Kimberly suspects this was the case with Yohana.
“If I had to guess, I’d say it was family-related and she was getting pressure from somewhere to stay. We had talked to her brother in Eritrea and he was very pro having her stay.”
The situation was a devastating blow to her team mates at home, who sobbed to Yohana over the phone because they were aware of the implications that her decision could have on their own cycling dreams.
“They were begging me not to quit and not to stop the team”, Kimberly said. “It was hard for them. I think that them seeing this and going through the process with me will ensure that their focus is more on the team and not their individual desires.”
Moving forward after such a difficult situation could have been reason enough to shelve the team. However, Kimberly went to Interbike to continue her search for sponsors and supporters of the project. The reception from sponsors was encouraging.
“I’ve got all these amazingly talented young women throughout Africa and for me the biggest fear was that one woman’s decision could have brought everything down. In the end she isn’t even going to be a cyclist anymore; it’s tragic.
Just because one young woman made her personal decision I could not stand by and let that be the decision which shut the door to literally hundreds of women cyclists on the continent of Africa. Our sponsors have been with us a long time and truly understand, backing an African cycling team will never be easy, but it will always make a difference.”
The Africa Rising team are putting things in place to make sure that this situation doesn’t happen again. Contracts will be written before the next group of riders visit the US and logistics will be tightened up.
“Through this experience, with the other Eritrean cyclists watching everything unfold at home thousands of miles away, the team is even more committed than before. They know I am not going to give up and walk away. I’m going to keep opening doors for them and they know they will be the ones to change the face of women’s professional cycling.”
Yohana is now living with her cousin on the east coast and has no contact with Kimberly or Team Africa Rising.