Julius Achon: Legendary athlete who adopted his community

Sunday October 21 2012

Julius Achon: Legendary athlete who adopted his community

Julius Achon during the interview. Photo by Ismail Kezaala. 

By Jacinta Odongo

In Uganda’s sport’s circles, the name Julius Achon is synonymous with middle distance running. Achon’s impressive performances from 1994 stretching to 2002 inspired many athletes. However, it is his contributions off the track that have endeared him to his community. The former child soldier of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), whose talent on the track earned him scholarships both in Uganda and the US, cannot thank God enough for the fortune he has had in life that has enabled him touch the lives of people in his community. While doing his morning training in June 2003, the 36-year-old ran into 11 homeless children banded together under a parked bus, seeking warmth from the engine. “These children had nowhere to go, after being orphaned by rebels from the two- decade civil war. Most of them had turned into beggars lining up along different shops and streets. Their faces showed hunger and misery and I was so touched by what I saw. I couldn’t chase them away especially after one of them called me and asked for food. They inspired me to do a lot for my community,” Achon says.

After having a brief talk with a few people, Achon took the children to his parents’ home in Awake village, Otuke District, where his father agreed to let them stay, provided Achon would send money to cover the cost of food once he returned to Lisbon in Portugal.

Taking a journey
The two came to an agreement and he promised to meet his targets. He flew back to Portugal, where he lived and trained at the time, two days after the incident. On the flight, he began to worry because he had just concluded his scholarship programme at George Mason College, although he had signed a contract with a Portuguese running club, which paid him just $5,000 (Shs12.5m) a year.

His monthly budget for food on the orphans was $1,200 (Shs3m) a year, almost a quarter of his current salary and he also had to send money to his family every month. “I had a lot of responsibilities and I knew I had to work extra hard. These children meant a lot to me and I didn’t want to lose them because of financial issues, so I continued to perform better in most of my races so as to win a better scholarship and get a well-paying job,” explains the soft spoken Olympian.

Achon later transferred to the University of Phoenix, US where he joined the Nike Oregon Project in Portland, Oregon, as a trainer to elite US Olympic athletes. He continued to give support to the orphans and other members of his village, wiring money directly to his brother for the purchase of food, seed, oxen, clothing, shelter, tuition and uniforms.

After a period of two years, Achon met Jim Fee in Portland, and opened a charity foundation called Achon Children’s Fund (ACF), which is presently sponsoring more than 40 orphans by paying their tuition, giving them scholastic materials, food and other necessities.

“I was so happy when Fee decided to partner with me. We have done a lot of developments in my community alongside other partners from Australia. It wasn’t easy for me to reach where I am but it was by God’s grace.”

Determined at all costs
“My community is very grateful and some of them constantly visit my home to thank my dad and my brother Jimmy. I always look back at my past and I am determined to help my community with the little I earn,” Achon narrates.

In August 2009, Achon built a church community centre and a pit latrine in his village. He started this project after attending his mum’s burial church ceremony, which was conducted under a tree. Achon also built two boreholes for his community.

Fee and Achon also began fundraising to build a health centre in Awake. The health centre, named after his mother, Kristina Health Centre (KHC), was successfully opened in August this year by the State Minister for Health in-charge of Primary Health Care, Sarah Opendi. KHC got support from his friends in America and Australia and partnered with the Ministry of Health and has employed about 12 people, including a clinic manager, senior clinical officer, comprehensive nurse, laboratory assistant and nursing assistant among other positions. Achon’s next project is to buy an ambulance and extend the maternity section in the clinic.

“I don’t have a lot of money as what some people may think. I am doing all this for my community and to benefit others. I am not trying to campaign for any votes because politics is not my field of interest.

If everyone would share no matter how little they have we would have a lasting peace, love and harmony,” he states.

Achon currently lives in the US with his wife Grace and their one-year-old son. His foundation, ACF, got an award for the best charity in Uganda by Motor Care Company. He will officially receive the award cheque and an accolade on November 10.

His Sport’s Career
Achon began to run when he was only 10. He was inspired by the stories of John Akii-Bua, the Ugandan 400m hurdler who won Olympic gold in 1972. When he was 12, he was abducted by the LRA to fight as a child soldier in a civil war but managed to escape after three months.

He entered and won his first race in 1989, which earned him a place at the district championships in Lira town in the same year. Having no money to afford a pair of shoes, Achon ran bare foot, but still won three different races including the 800m, 1,500m and 3,000m in the same day.

His success at the district championships gave him a place at the national championships, where he won the 1,500m in 4:09.52, watched by Christopher Banage Mugisha, the then Games Master at Makerere College. Mugisha offered Achon a scholarship to join Makerere University where he spent four years studying Sports Science.

In 1994, he was chosen among the national team to represent Uganda in the World Junior Championships in Lisbon, where became the first Ugandan to win gold running the 1,500m in 3:39.78. Victory was followed by offers of scholarships from a number of US colleges and he chose George Mason University.

In 1996, he made his debut in the Summer Olympic in Atlanta, US, when he was only 19. He ran two heats including the 800m and 1,500m where he finished in the sixth position.

He went on to compete at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where he reached the 1,500m semi-finals. He did not participate in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games after his mother was killed by the LRA.

He won a bronze medal in the 1995 All Africa Games in Harare, Zimbabwe. Achon also claimed international victory in the 2001 World Indoor Championships in Portugal and the African Champions in 2002 in Rades, Tunisia where he finished with a timing of 3:43.00. Unfortunately, a car crash in May 2007 put an end to his running career.

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