Houston. The Ugandan weightlifter Charles Ssekyaaya was the happiest man at the 2015 IWF World Championships in Houston.
Before the first session, the men’s 62kg D Group, the 7ft 2in basketball superstar Dikembe Mutombo appeared on stage to say a few words. Mutombo, who also played a role in the opening ceremony on Thursday night, was an NBA player for 18 seasons, the last five of them in Houston.
He is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and is renowned for his humanitarian work in Africa. In a message to all athletes he said, “I know what it takes to compete on the international stage. I wish you good luck and good success.”
Success, for the lifters on day one, was not winning medals – there were no medal sessions, just the lesser divisions. The main aim was setting personal bests and perhaps national records.
Mutombo, who retired from playing six years ago, would have been happy that the first lifter to make his mark in that respect was an African. Ssekyaaya made six good lifts for a total of 263kg, beating the Ugandan national record in the clean & jerk and the total.
“Six from six! I am so happy,” he told the Daily Monitor after his competition. “This is better than anything I have done before, and now that I have such strong men behind me I feel that nothing can stop me.”
Ssekyaaya has spent the past two months at Colorado Springs, being coached by Zygmunt Smalcerz, head weightlifting coach at the US Olympic Training Center. He won an Olympic solidarity scholarship and will be in Colorado Springs until June, hoping to get a wild card for the Rio Olympics next summer.
“I have improved really quickly,” said Ssekyaaya, 21, who improved his total by 24kg on his recent fifth place at the All-Africa Games in Brazzaville, Congo. He previously trained at the Kasubi Physique club in Kampala. “Here in the United States I can just train. I have a coach, a room, the right food – I never had that before.
“I know I can get better, and I am really hopeful of geting a wild card for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro next summer.
“I tried other sports when I was younger – running and boxing, but I was very bad. But when I first went to a gym, aged 11, people said ‘You can never lift that’ and I lifted it. Weightlifting was for me.”
There is one other Ugandan lifter here in Houston. Becky Namusoke will compete in the women’s +75kg C Group – the third of three divisions in that weight category – on Friday 27th. Namusoke, from Jinja, was ninth in the Commonwealth Games in both 2010 and 2014.
This year’s Championships have attracted athletes from more parts of the world than ever before. The highest number of national federations represented previously was 87 in Paris in 2011. This year the 609 lifters are drawn from 98 nations, several of whom are competing for the first time at this level.