Today, Ugandan rowing coach Rodrick Muhumuza will meet up with the country’s first and only representative in the sport at the Olympics in Tokyo.
Grace Kathleen Noble, who qualified for the Games in October 2019 after winning the women’s single scull B-final ahead of rowers from Togo and Nigeria in eight minutes and 36 seconds, would never have rowed for Uganda if it was not for Muhumuza’s visit to the US rowing headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey, in 2014.
“When I got to Princeton, I met a lady called Bertha Wang to whom I introduced myself as the Ugandan coach,” Muhumuza recollects of the 2014 incident.
“Her quick response was that there was a Ugandan rower in their lightweight university eight. I did not believe because I literally knew all Ugandan rowers at the time.
“But I could not go out to meet Noble because I had just a day to return to Uganda so I picked her contact from Bertha and got in touch to learn about her Ugandan roots.”
The 26-year-old, born to missionary parents Gerry and Moira Noble in Luweero, shared her passport and that she had represented Uganda in swimming – especially at the 2012 World Championships in Turkey, where she made national records in 50m freestyle and 50m butterfly.
Her 29.22 time in the freestyle bettered what Olympians Aya Nakitanda (29.71) and Jamila Lunkuse (29.34) had managed in the 2008 and 2010 worlds, respectively.
Nine years later, her butterfly time is still Uganda’s best in the short course worlds.
“That was it for me. Her zeal, determination and dedication showed me that we had found someone to push for Olympic qualification and fly our flag like she had done in swimming,” Muhumuza says.
After some convincing, Noble – who had returned to Uganda for holidays – enrolled with Maroons Rowing Club, where Muhumuza is a director.
Under the tutelage of coach William Mwanga, she changed her orientation, starting from the basics, to become a single sculler.
Over the years, she has improved and moved from Princeton to Utah, where she works, studies and trains with coaches Linda and Ahsan Iqbal, with whom she travelled to Tokyo on Sunday.
So what are her prospects like in the regatta that starts Friday?
“She has had good preparations in the US with coach Ahsan. He prepared her prior to the qualifiers and he has had so much time with her prior to the Games,” Muhumuza said.
“We feel she has had adequate preps and she will do her best in Tokyo. She had some tryouts at different regattas in the US that helped her gauge standards and steps for improvement and you can clearly see her spirit to get better.”
Uganda’s rowing team expects a hot and humid Tokyo a recipe for a challenging course that is why little attention will be paid to her times but her overall position at the end of the classification regattas.
“In rowing, race times may not tell the true story because of weather at different race locations,” Muhumuza said.
“The challenge maybe is that Noble has been training in a country with different weather. But I believe that having grown up in Uganda makes her tougher to comfortably row in any kind of weather.”
Unfortunately, Noble has made clear of her intentions to retire from active rowing after the Games.
The big question is whether the rowing federation has enough talent in stock to keep the Olympic flame burning.
“She has not shared her intentions with me but given the nature of her job and location, I would understand if Kathleen stops competing.
Moving forward, we have a lot of young people who are into rowing currently at Miami, Kisubi, Garuga and Buloba beaches.
However for 2024 and beyond, we need maximum support from government and UOC (Uganda Olympic Committee) to help us to with preparations if we are to have more Kathleens,” Muhumuza said before revealing that for eight months, a container of donated boats and equipment by World Rowing Federation and International Olympic Committee has been lying at URA Customs because officials cannot get tax exemptions to bring them to the waters.
“In fact, we are lucky that Kathleen has had her own preparations in the US. It would have been different if she were here. With these old and outdated equipment we have, she would stand no chance,” he said.
Muhumuza’s coaching journey
When he was announced national coach in 2013, the future seemed bleak for the federation that has had its fair share of wrangles – ranging from sham training camps, corruption, to leadership fights and not holding competitions for years.
Muhumuza, who will be in Tokyo for his first Olympic experience, is one of the names that has persevered through it all, and now relishes “being at the epitome of his coaching career, a full metamorphosis.”
“I have made it a point to move up and allow upcoming coaches to take over at the different levels,” Muhumuza, who has over the years led teams to world senior and junior events, said.
For him, most notably were trips to the Youth Olympics; Nanjing - China in 2014, where he coached Constance Mbambu, and Buenos Aires - Argentina in 2018 with Grace Ndagire.
As he moves to technical director for the sport, Mwanga, who is currently churning up all the necessary experience in the US, will step up as national coach while Kwiringira Mugisha, who is big with unearthing talent at Miami Beach, Luzira, is expected to be imbedded in the national set up.
At a glance
Name: Grace Kathleen Noble
Parents: Gerry and Moira Noble
Born: Dec 20, 1994
Place of Birth: Luwero
Primary: Kabira International (1999-2004)
Secondary: International School of Uganda (2004-2013)
University: Princeton, USA