I met Lizzy for the first time when I was in primary school, way back in the 70s. Her school was having an inter-house meet and my school had been invited. I was in primary five or six then.
I did the 100 metres and relay events. While we waited for the main events to go on, I’d noticed a petite girl who kept on dusting every other person. She seemed to be participating in all the events.
“Who is that girl? I asked our games master, my finger pointing, as I watched the same girl coast home to win the 100 metres sprint event for her house. That’s Lizzy Ubeh. The state government has given her a scholarship to go to the secondary school. She is the best athlete in the Junior category. Many boys are scared of running with her,” he told me as the whistle sounded for our point. I kept hearing the girl’s name in my brain. “Lizzy Ubeh!” And it surprised and amazed me to learn that she’d got a scholarship just because she had fast legs.
I’d competed in the 100 metres and won. Our relay team took the second position because they had fumbled with the baton.
As soon as I was free, I’d pulled Paul, my friend and team mate along. Come I want to race that girl. I told him as we went searching for Lizzy Ubeh.
We found her in the midst of her friends and the competitive edge coming out in me, I said:
“I want to race you. If you win, I’ll give you N50. If I win you, give me N50.” I said, my breath catching in my throat.
“But, I haven’t got N50,” she said.
Fifty naira was big money then and I’d only saved up money for the meet by foregoing my lunch breaks.
“How much do you have?” I asked.
“Nothing. I have no money,” she said and I’d begun to turn away. I wanted to run and compete for something.
“Okay, if you win, you take my scarf”, she told me, waving the bright orange scarf just above her head. I said that was cool by me and the next thing her friends were abuzz with the news and it soon went round and we had to be asked to run on the main pitch.
Everyone was excited. They were screaming and yelling her name while the tiny group from my school stood on one side and watched the unfolded scenario.
We took our positions and for once, my heart melted in anxiety. What if she beat me? I banished the thought as quickly as it had come and then the next thing I heard was the gun.
And there she was in front of me, her fast legs eating up the tracks. She’d taken off ahead of me. I suppose she’d had about a yard start ahead of me.
I’d gathered my strength and given chase. The pitch was alive and electric. Everybody was screaming and yelling her name. I ran like I’d never run before. I watched the gap disappear between us as I caught up with her about 10 metres to the end.
By now, the screams had reached the highest tempo and the only thing I could hear was Lizzy! Lizzy!! Lizzy!!! If my school mates were cheering, I couldn’t hear it. But the calls only fuelled my legs and I ran and breasted the tape a yard or less before her.
The crowd roared like a huge beast as I came to a stop and bent to catch my breath. But what happened next was surprising and strange. The crowd rushed to where Lizzy was and lifted her shoulder high and began a victory lap, while I stood there wondering what had gone wrong. I’d won the race but someone else had triumphed.
I was soon joined by my school boys and the games master who gave me a huge grin and a bear hug.
“That was a great race. You’ve done us proud. “He said as he patted me on the shoulder.
I didn’t even get to see Lizzy Ubeh again and we were getting into the bus that brought us when someone ran up to us and threw the scarf at me.
“Lizzy said I should give it to you,” she said and ran off and for the first time since I won the race I let myself smile. I’d won the race and even though it had turned into a celebration for Lizzy Ubeh, I’d still got my prize.
I’d gone back home and then to school the next Monday where I was given another special prize by the principal for doing the school proud.
The race was the talk of the school for the rest of the term and I’d been glad to lap up all the admiration and acclaim as I came to school every day with the scarf tied around my head or neck.
It became a sort of good luck charm for me as I wore it every time I had to run in an event.
When I left primary school, I had to go to school in a Federal Government College down east and though I still continued to compete at athletic events, I never came across nor heard of Lizzy Ubeh again, even though I still had her scarf.
I finished secondary school and was admitted into the university to study Architecture and as soon as I’d settled in, I began training with the athletics team.
And I’d been there for about a month when I saw Lizzy Ubeh in flesh again after almost seven years!
I was doing stretches, when I looked up and our eyes locked. A tingling sensation ran down my spine as she held my gaze for a moment, then frowned and looked away. I watched as she moved to a group of girls nearby and began to exercise. I stopped exercising and watched her every move. I was still watching when Greg, one of the guys on our relay team bashed into my thoughts.
“Haba, you never see woman before?” He asked, punching me playfully on the back as he settled beside me on the grass.
“You know her?” I asked, gesturing towards Lizzy with my head.
“Ehen, now, she’s Lizzy, the superstar-sprinter,” he said and rolled his eyes. “Everyone believes that we’ve won this year’s 100 metres gold in the female event because she’s here.” Greg added. He didn’t seem bowled over by the superstar.
“You don’t think she’s good?” I’d asked.
“Good or not, she’s just a woman and you know how women are, once you start praising them they will start messing up,” Greg said, cutting and chewing a blade of grass.
“I like her,” I said more to myself than Greg.
“It’s obvious. I saw how you were staring at her. She’s a fine girl though. Nice face, nice figure. I just hope she’s smart too.”
“But it’s true.” He said and got to his feet. “I want to do two laps, you want to come?” he asked.
I shook my head and stared way ahead, twirling the scarf around my fingers.
“You’re still thinking of her?” he said, stooping to eye level.
I’d smiled and said. “You know, she gave this scarf to me.”
Greg had looked at me like I’d gone mad. Then he’d said, “you’ve always had that. She just moved here.”
“She gave it to me years ago,” I said.
“Of course, she did. And you don’t even know her name,” Greg said, not ready to believe me at all.
“Aright, just forget it,” I told him and lay back on the grass. He’d stood and trotted off.
I’d laid there for a while before I stood up to do some laps. I was half way through the second lap when Lizzy joined me. I’d acted as if I didn’t notice her and went on with my jogging. I did four and went to sit under the shade of a tree.
To Be Continued…