Kirabo Namutebi’s double gold at the 2019 Africa Junior Championships will remind you of Roger Bannister’s story.
Before May 6, 1954, legend had it that no man was capable of running a mile under four minutes. On the day, Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier, running the distance in 3:59.04.
As part of his training, he relentlessly visualized the achievement to create certainty in his mind and body. Running a mile under four minutes is almost a given today.
For long, the swimming fraternity in Uganda only measured progress and performance at world and continental competitions in terms of personal bests (PBs) and national records - never medals.
“Majority thought that if you are to put up a medal performance, you need to be trained out of this country and such thinking has curtailed investment in our sport,” national and Dolphins coach Muzafaru Muwanguzi, shares.
For him, this was more than just a limiting belief. It turned into frustration for him and his colleagues that tried to ‘make things happen.’ They, however, had no option but to keep faith in the programme they had designed to nurture elite swimmers.
How it all started
In October 2015, Rebecca Ssengonzi did her best to change the narrative around our swimming when she scooped silver in the 100m butterfly (1:03.74) and bronze in the 400 IM (5:18.06) in the girls’ 15-16 years age group at the Africa Junior Championships in Cairo – Egypt.
Those were Uganda’s first swimming medals on the continental stage but not many saw that as swimming Bannister-moment.
She was instead seen as an outlier whose achievements were quickly associated to the few months she had spent in the USA – all her time tussling it out locally quickly forgotten. In fact the cynicism started away from home.
“When we had our flag raised – for the first time in African swimming by the way – some of the coaches from other countries wanted to know more about Rebecca,” Peter Mugisha, who was coaching the national team coach at the event then, recalls. “We told them she had been born and raised in Uganda but had recently moved to the US for studies. It soothed their egos a bit but we assured them that we would soon have a home-based swimmer break records at this meet.”
On September 12 last year – four years later – the prediction came to pass as Namutebi scooped gold in the 50m breaststroke with a new PB 35.13 at the 2019 edition of the Africa Juniors in Tunisia. That right there was the Bannister moment.
The day before, there had been warning signs for the rest of Africa as she missed the 50m butterfly podium by just four microseconds – clocking 29.99 seconds just behind Nigeria’s bronze winner Adama Iman with 29.95.
The Dolphins swimmer topped the breaststroke heats with 35.68 – her second best time this year after the 35.22 she managed earlier at the Fina Juniors held in Budapest – Hungary in August.
But she was still not sure, she had it in her to re-write history.
“I was honestly scared because I did not know what to expect but I had been taught to have this mindset, where I do not mind about other swimmers but focus on giving the races my best.”
In her element, Namutebi is unstoppable. A day later she went on to double her fortune with another gold in the 50m freestyle (27.33) and wrapped up the championship with silver in the 100m freestyle (1:00.32 – missing gold by just nine microseconds behind the winner).
“The 50m free is my main race and I went in with the mindset of; this is my race to win. I came all the way from Uganda to win this and God led me to glory,” Namutebi recalls.
The confidence had stemmed 20 days prior from Budapest, where she had achieved a national record (26.98) sinking Jamila Lunkuse’s 27.43 from the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland. She ranked 38th out of 102 swimmers but the only African swimmer that beat her was South Africa’s Aimee Canny (25.48).
Tension back at home
With such a profile and Uganda’s first gold medal already secured, Namutebi was buzzing but the emotions were quite tense at home.
“I remember, before every race, we were under lots of tension with Tendo (Mukalazi – her brother),” Namutebi’s mother Hadijah Namanda, recalls.
“I was working till late at the time so we used to watch the races in office. Our emotions got the better of us and the security guys must have been wondering why we screaming like that. But overall, her performances were very humbling,” Namanda, also president of Uganda Volleyball Federation, re-lives the moments.
Humbled too were the local coaches, who felt this was a triumph for their own aspirations.
“I was happy for her and to me her performance was testimony that it is possible for a home-grown swimmer to perform to this level,” Muwanguzi, who learnt about the feat while he was in London for the World Para-swimming Championships, says.
It did not just stop at being an up-turn in performance but Muwanguzi feels the sport is “getting more exciting with more people joining while the federation now has better capacity and records to influence funding.”
NAMUTEBI AT A GLANCE
Name: Kirabo Namutebi
Parents: Tom Mpuuja Mutebi and Hadija Namanda
Date of Birth: February 8, 2005
School: British School of Kampala