While Jamaica has Glen Mills to thank for turning Usain Bolt into a world-class athlete and Ivory Coast points to Anthony Koffi for the success of sprint sensation Marie-Josee Ta Lou, Botswana is indebted to Justice Dipeba for the transformation of Isaac Makwala into an international brand.
Dipeba and Makwala started working together in 2013 following the latter’s arrival from the Caribbean island of Jamaica, which was his training base. While in Jamaica, Makwala failed to reach his desired levels, hence his return to his native land to be under the tutelage of the former national team athlete, Dipeba. Greater things would follow for the matching of these two.
When Dipeba and Makwala started out, Makwala’s personal bests (PBs) in the 200m and 400m races were 20.73 seconds and 45.25 seconds respectively. It took Dipeba a year to turn the Tutume-born lad into a brand in international athletics. Witness how his coaching skills helped Makwala accomplish the fastest double ever in a single day in the 200m and the 400m races at the La Chaux-de-Fonds meet in Switzerland in 2014!
That is when Makwala smashed the 400m African record in 44.01 seconds and won the 200m in 19.96 seconds one and-a-half hours later.
To prove that he was indeed a good coach and the coach for Makwala, Dipeba helped his eager charge to improve his 400m PB to 43.72 seconds at the 2015 La Chaux-de-Fonds meet, a time that currently places the sprint sensation as the 10th fastest athlete in the history of the men’s 400m race. Coach JD, as Dipeba is otherwise known, would see his athlete lower his 200m PB to 19.77 seconds at the Moratalaz meet in Madrid, Spain in 2014.
But Dipeba would witness his protege achieve greater fame at the 2017 World Championships when he ran a solo time 200m trial in 20.20s to qualify for the semi-finals. He emerged 0.06 sec quicker two hours later. Qualified. He had to run the solo time trial because he had been barred from taking part in the 200m heats after he was suspected to have the Norovirus. Makwala also did not run the 400m final where he was the most significant threat to the eventual champion, South Africa’s Wayde van Niekerk.
However, Coach DJ and Makwala did not despair, and soon enough the athlete tasted his maiden title (with the national team) in 2018 when he claimed the Commonwealth Games 400m gold medal in 44.35 season! A dull season followed for the two in 2019 due mainly to injuries. When they hoped to bounce back in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic that brought sports around the world to a standstill happened.
The pandemic nevertheless did not distract Dipeba and Makwala from their goal of ensuring that Botswana would stamp its authority on the Olympic tracks for at least one more time through Makwala. This is evidenced by online videos from last year that show the athlete training on his own at his home and in the bush in strict accordance with Dipeba’s training programmes. He did so because stadiums were out of bounds as a part of measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dipeba and Makwala’s efforts have proved fruitful at the just-ended Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Despite not winning a medal in his individual 400m race in which he finished a dismal seventh in the final, Makwala became the vital cog in the men’s 4x400m relay. As the beginner of the team, Makwala split 44.90 seconds in the semi-finals to ensure that the relay team – which was made up Baboloki Thebe, Zibani Ngozi and Bayapo Ndori – qualified for the finals with an African record (AR) of 2:58.33. Makwala recorded the fastest split (43.80 seconds) of the four when the team won Botswana a bronze medal in the 4x400m relay finals, smashing the national record to 2:57.27 in pursuit.
“Coach JD is a very special coach,” Makwala enthused in an exclusive interview with this publication. “I think it is easy for me to perform under him because he is so friendly and likes his athletes. He is a very understanding coach who likes to see his athletes excel.”
The coach himself attributes things (read Makwala’s superb form and performance) to their “combination”. In Dipeba’s own words: “We both respect each other and respect our sport. We strive for excellence. So the key thing here is the relationship. We understand each other. So it was easy for me to make him buy into my coaching methods. I made him to believe in himself. I got him to understand what it takes to be a great athlete. And that’s all it took to make Makwala who he is today.”
But what motivated Dipeba to turn to coaching after his retirement from athletics? “As they say, coaching is calling for sure,” he returned. “It is something that you do because you love it and you have a passion for it. Most importantly for me is the opportunity to change people’s lives that coaching makes possible. It is a tool that I use to help young people to change their lives for the better. The whole point behind my coaching is to make a difference in someone’s life.”