Kathleen breathes life into rowing

Thursday July 22 2021

Carrying The Nation. Ugandan rower Kathleen takes her Nelo orange boat to training, with coach Ahsan Iqbal (not in picture) at Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo - Japan, where the Olympics regatta will be starting in the early hours of Friday at 3am. Inset she takes a breather during a water break. PHOTO/COURTESY

By Makhtum Muziransa

Tonight is hopefully when everything changes for Ugandan rowing.
When 26-year old Grace Kathleen Noble takes to the Sea Forest Waterway, in her Nelo-manufactured orange boat accompanied with oars painted in Uganda flag colours, to open the Tokyo 2020 Olympics chapter for Uganda, the rowing fraternity will hope for a new dawn of inspiration, admiration and hope.
Kathleen, to burst the bubble a bit, is not in Tokyo to win but just getting out there will remind the country of its unharnessed potential in a sport that has seen a lot of young talent waste away in the midst of administrative fights.
“In rowing you cannot look at people’s times and judge because the weather plays a huge factor,” Kathleen said of her chances, in Heat 2 of the women’s single scull that happens tonight (3am Ugandan) time, during an interview with the Uganda Olympic Committee (UOC) media. “But I will be looking at finishing among the fastest rowers from Africa,” she added.
Before that, she had told this newspaper - during her training camp in Saratoga and Philadelphia, where she and her coach Ahsan Iqbal tried out the specialized hull-shaped Nelo boat designed to row on rough waters - that she “wanted to inspire younger rowers from Uganda and show them its possible (to go to the Olympics).”
This sport, and a host of others, was introduced here by fallen veteran sports administrator Nicholas P’Minga.
But it was after the world governing body Fisa donated equipment in 2008 that it was reorganized by its enthusiasts to form Uganda Rowing Federation (URF).
Everyone called it a niche support, that would later turn out to be responsible for a ton of international medals and prestige, in our country that is a home of various water bodies.
However, from the get go, things have been complicated for the rowing fraternity, which initially relied heavily on the technical support of foreign instructors like Swiss instructor Paul Daetwyler and Britain’s Jim Flood.
URF has been the bedrock of gross mismanagement, ego fights, denied and missed opportunities, corruption but never a lack of dreamers. In fact even at the height of their wrangles, in which Fisa and Uganda Olympic Committee were always dragged, rowing in Uganda kept dreaming big.  
One time in 2014, Douglas Kisalare, Raymond Adiga, William Mwanga and Samuel Mpiira were supposed to row at the Commonwealth regatta in Scotland before heading to Netherlands for the World Rowing Championships.
Old athletes
However, URF president Hamza Kahwa pulled them out of the championships faulting his technical committee for sending old athletes, especially Adiga and Kisalare- both 34 years old, to Europe.
Gerald Ssemambo was offered an opportunity to replace the ‘old’ quartet, only for the federation to realize days later that the athlete’s European visa had expired.As Flood led an inquiry into the botched trip to Scotland, Kahwa accused the foreign well-wishers that also included Hillary Epes and Thomas Friedhoff of trying to usurp his powers and opined then that URF had put its emphasis on developing young athletes ahead of the 2016 Olympics.
He organised a residential camp in Luzira at one of the coaches’ facilities but, as reported by Daily Monitor then, the lock-up turned into a farce; money (in its tens of thousands of dollars) could hardly be accounted for, athletes rights abused and eventually there was no qualification to Rio let alone going for the qualifiers.
But far away from the Ugandan drama, in  New Jersey - USA, the then 20-year old Kathleen was into her formative years in the sport as a member of the Princeton University eight team.
The former national swimmer, who had represented Uganda at the World Championships in Turkey in 2012, needed some convincing from national coach Rodrick Muhumuza to represent Uganda in another sport.
She duly accepted and was helped to convert to a single scull rower by Mwanga, who had resorted to coaching at Maroons Aquatics Club in Luzira.
As the federation kept a blind eye on organizing activities, clubs took on the mantle. Maroons continued to do their activities on the sidelines alongside clubs like Kampala Rowing - who are run by Kisalare - Kisubi Pirates and Nalubaale, who ran regattas on Kabaka’s Lake until 2018.
Forgotten Kisalare
Although Kisalare’s club is not recognized by the federation, he went to the 2019 Africa Championships in Tunisia with Kathleen.
The latter, not eaten up by URF issues and riding on getting the right foundation from Princeton qualified to represent Uganda in Tokyo at the expense of Togo and Nigeria.
The former, will be a constant reminder that Uganda’s only sustainable way into regularly competing at the international scene is to nurture the talent at home. We cannot always depend on another Kathleen popping out in Princeton.
The ravaging Covid-19 pandemic had led to the postponement of this watershed achievement last year but tonight in Tokyo, Kathleen’s dream will come true and probably change Ugandan rowing’s course.