By Tomas Hill Lopez-Menchero
Rabah Yousif pauses for a second. I have just asked him whether he was ever frightened during a journey which has taken him from Sudan to Britain, from a 14-year-old unable to speak English to a 31-year-old British athlete about to make his Commonwealth Games debut on Australia’s Gold Coast.
“It was always scary,” the 400m runner says. “When I arrived here I was 14 years old, and it’s definitely scary. But where I come from there are some scarier things.
“There are things that happen where I come from that you don’t see, or you can’t see that type of thing at all, it doesn’t exist over here. I stayed here for a few months and then you feel the sense of security and everything.”
Yousif had to work hard to achieve that sense of security. Born to a track and field family in Khartoum, his father was a former Sudanese sprint champion and his two uncles also competed in various events.
It was during a stopover with the Sudanese junior athletics team in Sheffield that he took a decision which would change his life. The team were taking part in a training camp ahead of the 2002 World Junior Championships, but instead of returning to his country of birth he fled and claimed asylum. He says the ruthless nature of athletics in Sudan persuaded him to stay in Britain.
“With us in Sudan, it was a bit complicated. It was cut-throat, straightforward. It’s rather that you’re going to have to do it, or [there’s] going to be so many consequences – you’re dropped off the team, not being considered at all – things like that, those types of games.
“Over here, it’s cut-throat as well, but it’s cut-throat in a way that I really need to perform. It’s not even about British Athletics, it’s about me, I need to go out there and perform.”
He lived with other asylum seekers in Wolverhampton, Walsall and finally Middlesbrough, until a series of lies about his age meant he came close to being deported. Thanks to marrying a Middlesbrough local and gaining a spouse’s visa in 2008, however, he was able to stay in the country. He still lives in Teesside with his wife and two kids.
“I was a bit lucky,” Yousif admits. “All the way from day one until now, I always managed to meet up with people who really are helpful and supportive towards me and my career and my journey. It was a struggle, it wasn’t easy, but sometimes if you really want something, you’re going to have to keep trying until you get what you want.”
His coach, Carol Williams, was particularly supportive. Yousif describes her as a “wonderful woman” and a “very strong and very good coach” whose advice he still relies on today. It is clear from speaking to him that she continues to have a big impact on Yousif.
“We started together, she told me that I could make it far. At the time, if you asked me that question I would have never, ever thought I would be standing here talking to you today regarding me going to take part in these championships.
“But I had the drive, I had nothing to lose, I didn’t have anything anyway to lose. So it was a case of just listening to her instructions and guidance, and she is really good on that.”
Was it not hard to focus on running while the threat of deportation loomed in the background?
“It’s difficult,” he explains. “To achieve big things, you need to have a clear mind, no problems whatsoever. Whatever problems you’ve got in life, you need to keep it in the locker until the finish.
“[Carol] sat me down and she explained things to me and she’s like: ‘No, listen, that’s how it’s going to be. Whatever we can change and have got power in our hands to do it, we’re going to do it. But other things which we don’t have control over, there’s nothing we can do about it so we’re just going to have to sit and wait and see how things go.’
“I put this in mind from day one, and I’m still using it. I always deal with things I have control over; other things which I have no control over, I just leave it.”
Without the possibility of representing Britain, he competed for Sudan, reaching the semi-finals of the 2009 World Championships and the London Olympics. Yousif underlines how important competing was for him, whatever the circumstances.
“My aim in life was that I wanted to compete. For Sudan, for whatever country, I wanted to compete. I needed to show whatever I’ve got in me and show it to the world, that’s how people make it to become great athletes and top individuals.
“I wanted to do it for Britain from day one. Since I stepped foot here, that’s been one of my goals – I wanted to represent Great Britain.”
His wish came true when he obtained British citizenship in 2013. Speaking to Yousif, you can still hear the excitement in his voice when he talks about it now.
“It was a very good feeling, that finally I’m doing something that I’ve been working most of my time in Britain towards. It actually gave me more drive to achieve bigger things, because I felt like I’d done the hard bit and now this is the easiest bit, which is to compete and make the most of this opportunity.”
With a clear mind, he was finally able to concentrate on running. He competed for his adopted country for the first time at the 2014 European Championships and reached the final of the 2015 World Championships, breaking the 45-second mark for the first time in his career.
Last year he returned to the London Stadium for the World Championships and won bronze with the 4x400m relay team. He says the atmosphere was “absolutely amazing” and tells me that “you wouldn’t even feel that this race is finished.”
Even so, he says he was not wholly satisfied. “I still feel like I have underachieved last season, for whatever reason. Honestly the past couple of years, since I’ve made my World Championship final, since that year until last year, I’ve just been haunted by injuries.”
Those injuries meant he missed out on Rio 2016 despite travelling with the squad to Brazil. He describes it as a “big setback” but also acknowledges it is “a part of the business”.
The next test is the Commonwealth Games in Australia, where Yousif will hope to compete for England in both the 400m and the 4x400m relay. He says it is an “unusual” competition as the season has yet to start.
“The body is going to feel different, but I have to adjust,” he tells me. “My goal is to just go out there and make that final, that’s the main thing. Go out there and make the finals first, and then when you’re in the final the odds are 7-1, which is better than 26-1.”
It has been some 16 years since Yousif first arrived in Britain armed with only a will to compete. How does he feel when he looks back at his journey now?
“Nothing is impossible. You could dream, and dreams do come to reality. It only needs some patience and to just keep doing the same thing. It actually made me a better man.
“I’m so proud of myself as a man, because I walked into this country as a 14-year-old, called myself a teenager or a boy, and I’m 31 now, so I’m a grown man. And my life turning from zero to more or less a hero, which is a good thing. I’m just enjoying every bit of it.”
Photograph: @rabahyousif_r via Twitter