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Friday, August 3, 2012
Swimming in Uganda: It's not so easy

By Jim Caple

LONDON – U.S. swimmers undoubtedly have put in countless hours and miles of training for their Olympic success. But at least they have sponsors who pay for their swimsuits.

Ganzi Mugula
Swimmer Ganz Mugula, captain of the Ugandan Olympic team, is part of an effort to grow the sport in Africa and parts of Asia.

"I bought this for $400,’’ Ugandan swimmer Ganzi Mugula said, slapping his knee-length black swimsuit. “This little thing. I dive in and I’m done with it after 27 seconds.’’

Of course, buying a suit has been the least of Mugula’s swimming hardships. As you might imagine, swimming isn’t a very accessible sport in Uganda.

"Swimming, culture-wise, is not considered for black people,’’ Mugula said. “It’s like saying I found a black man skiing -- it’s very rare. Swimming is very expensive. First, to access the pools is very expensive. . . . Most of the pools are at hotels. You can’t find a pool. When I come to a complex like this one, I say, ‘This is a complex for swimming. There are training pools and changing rooms.

“I swim in a school pool, a club pool, I swim in so many pools. Wherever I can find one.’’

Mugula was saying this minutes after competing in the second men’s 50 free heat Thursday, which he swam in 27.58 seconds, nearly seven seconds slower than the world record and roughly six seconds slower than it took to qualify for the final.

How does someone with such a time get to the Olympics? Mugula and other athletes like him are part of a FINA program that attempts to grow the sport in disadvantaged and developing countries by lowering the qualifying times for their swimmers. Thus, Mugula was swimming against athletes from Sudan, Djibouti, Cameroon, Sudan, Rwanda, Laos and Ethiopia. They race first thing in the morning and none came remotely close to reaching the finals, but that was hardly the point. The goal is growing the sport in Africa and certain parts of Asia so that one day their swimmers will be able to compete for Olympic medals.

"It has helped us. There are more black people in the water now,’’ said Mugula, who is the captain of the Ugandan Olympic team. “Every time you improve times, FINA increases the quota. That gives you incentive to go faster and faster and faster. That’s how they promote cultures. Last time they gave us three slots in the world championships, next time they will give us four or five. Which is good for kids -- it gives them much more exposure to the sport.

"It’s helped our coaches refresh their minds and find new ways of training. Training these days is so scientific. You no longer see the days of guys just swimming back and forth. It has helped our coaches. It has illuminated them.’’

Magula, who works in IT for a bank in Uganda’s capital of Kampala, is 33 and a former runner who started swimming 13 years ago. He said a lot of people back in Uganda were expecting him to win his heat but he finished fifth, .33 seconds behind the heat winner, Osman Abdourahman of Djibouti.

"I think I put too much pressure on myself,’’ he said. “Physically I felt fitter than I’ve ever been. I felt really strong. But psychologically, I put so much pressure on myself that I kind of tensed up.

"But it’s OK. The main point is I’m a winner and I’m an Olympian. I made it. I just need to look toward the next one.’’