After meeting his nation’s qualifying standards, BISP Class of 2020 alumnus Atuhaire (Atu) Ambala will swim for Uganda at the Tokyo Olympic Games tomorrow (Tuesday 27 July), earning the honour of becoming BISP’s first alumnus to compete at an Olympic Games. Atu will swim in the 100m freestyle at 7 pm local time in Japan.
Following Tokyo, Atu will take up a merit scholarship at Clark University in Massachusetts, where he will study Computer Science and Economics. After a year in East Africa, he has received an International Robert Goddard Achievement Scholarship and will join the Cougars – Clark’s Division 3 swim team. Robert Goddard was a Clark University professor in the early 20th Century who is best known as the father of modern rocketry. The scholarship recognises a select group of students who will follow in Goddard’s footsteps and “dare to imagine a world more inventive, creative, and productive than the world we already inhabit”. Thoroughly equipped with his IB Diploma and swimming credentials, Atu impressed scholarship selectors with an essay of application on the physics of a torpedo.
We spoke to Atu about his tumultuous year in Uganda and Kenya, where despite multiple lockdowns and long periods out of the pool, he managed to turn his Olympic dream into a reality.
What has the last year been like for you in East Africa during the pandemic?
When the pandemic first hit I went to Kenya and was out of the pool for nearly five months. It was great to spend time with my family. During that time I was doing a lot of dryland training from home and plenty of weight training to try and get stronger and more powerful. I also did plenty of running and cycling to maintain my cardiovascular ability, however, regardless of how much training I was doing, you can’t replace being in the water.
I jumped back into the water in August and I was training three times a week. It was extremely challenging. The pool I was training at was constantly closing because the covid situation was ever-evolving. I started training every day in early November, but I was only training once a day and I had to travel one hour just to get to the pool.
Around March the situation in Kenya was getting out of hand and pools and gyms were closing, forcing me out of the pool for another two weeks. In mid-April, I managed to travel to Uganda and I was able to train more than once a day. The situation was very strict, however. I was only allowed to move between the training venues and the apartment that I was staying in to try and minimise the risk of catching the virus.
In mid-June, I travelled to Japan for a pre-Games camp. That was filled with challenges, but I was happy that I was able to train in a long course pool for the first time in over a year. It goes without saying that the past year and a half have been challenging for everyone, but I consider myself extremely blessed to get the opportunity to train and to compete at the Olympic Games.
How have you managed to stay motivated and focused on your swimming?
My faith has been keeping me going throughout this tough period. I have spent a lot of time praying and reading my bible. Alongside this, my family, friends, coaches and teammates have reminded me of the goals that I had set for myself. I knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy journey, but rather an uphill battle. Whenever I did not feel like training I reminded myself that my competitors out there were training and that I could not afford to miss this session.
The times when I was not training I would often take my mind off swimming by doing something else, such as reading a book, cooking, baking, and doing the groceries among other things. I would do anything just to get my mind off the sport whenever I wasn’t training. Once a week I would review my training progress and try to identify areas that needed improving. I would then focus on these over the coming week so that I did not feel like I was reaching for a farfetched goal.
How does it feel to have been selected for the Tokyo Olympic Games and what are you most looking forward to?
It’s an amazing feeling and above all, it’s an honour to get the opportunity to represent my country at the Tokyo Olympic Games and I’m thankful to God for giving me this opportunity. Getting selected for the Olympic Games is also a testament to all the hard work, time and effort that my coaches, including coach Colin at BISP, have invested in me and I’m extremely grateful to them. Going into the Games I’m looking forward to improving my time in the 100-meter freestyle and really just putting all the hard work that I’ve been doing throughout these past years to good use.
How did the IB programme prepare you for life outside of school?
Outside of academics, the IB programme taught me many lessons, many of which I share with my fellow graduates, such as time management, responsibility, and a good work ethic. On a more individual basis, I feel that the IB taught me about the importance of respect in various ways, such as respecting other people’s cultures and traditions, respecting the opinions of others, respecting the time of others, and also self-respect. Those are some of the many lessons I will take with me through life that I learned from the IB programme.
What was your experience like as a high-performance student-athlete at BISP?
I had a highly memorable experience as a high-performance student-athlete at BISP. It allowed me to get the best of both worlds. I was able to train at the highest level without compromising my studies, which was great as I valued both of them equally. I will forever be grateful to BISP for allowing me the opportunity to be a student-athlete. It was a great experience to train alongside some of the best junior athletes from all over the world who knew all too well the challenges faced by a student-athlete. Alongside this, the coaching staff and the teachers understood the challenges that we faced as student-athletes and would support us in the best way possible. Being in such a positive environment just put me in the best position to succeed both in my swimming and in my academics.
American universities ask scholarship applicants to tell their stories. What is unique about your experience?
I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to study at various schools in various countries and even study in three different education systems, but that is not what is unique about my experience. I quickly learned that being an international student was simply just not as unique as I thought it would be. The most unique aspect of my experience is my own journey. Everyone has a different journey in life, the difficulty arises when it comes to building it into a story. It was only when I fully sat down that I was able to see how my life experiences were interconnected and from that, I was able to construct my story.
My parents both come from small villages in Western Kenya and in Western Uganda. Wherever I went, I didn’t belong. I’ve faced adversity in my swimming career, with many people telling me that it was impossible for me to continue to focus on my academics and swim at the highest level. In spite of all of this, my family constantly reminds me of how far I’ve come just to get to this point. I have had the opportunity to represent my country, travel the world, and compete at prestigious events like the Olympic Games and the World Championships. I had the opportunity to get a scholarship to go to school at BISP and train with some of the best coaches and junior swimmers in the world. These are all many things that I do not take for granted. The challenges I have overcome and the challenges I am yet to overcome have made me who I am today.
Your essay of application to Clark University was about the physics of a torpedo. Why did you choose this topic?
I have always been fascinated by water, and physics has always been one of my favourite subjects. When I was doing some research about how I could improve my swimming, I stumbled across a number of YouTube videos explaining the science of how a torpedo works – how they are able to maximize speed and stealth by reducing resistance. This immediately resonated with me because swimming is a sport all about reducing resistance and the easiest way to do this is to maintain a streamlined body position. The torpedo is a marvel of engineering. It is a combination of various parts of nature. Similarly, in swimming, we take a lot of things from nature and by taking the time to understand how the torpedo works I was able to better understand how I can improve my swimming.
How important was it for you to gain an international qualification like the IB Diploma?
In the last year alone the strength and the power of the international community have been like nothing we’ve seen before in history. People are able to join protests from halfway across the world. People are able to bring change into the lives of people they may have never met or will never meet. The interconnectedness of our communities from all over the world has proven to be pivotal in saving the lives of many. Gaining an international qualification like the International Baccalaureate allowed me to be part of that change. It gave me a step from which I could stand and use my voice for positive change. Throughout the course, I learned numerous things from numerous different countries. Ultimately I will say that the things I have learnt from different countries have triggered me to constantly remain “internationally aware”.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I haven’t really thought this far out but in the next five years, I’m hoping that I will still be swimming and would have had the chance to compete at a second Olympic Games. After completing my undergraduate degree, I’m hoping to go on to do my graduate courses and hopefully start up a business.
Don’t forget to watch Atuhaire in action in the men’s 100m freestyle at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games at 7 pm local time in Japan on Tuesday 27 July.
Photo credit: Ug Sport official YouTube channel, BISP Media and Atuhaire Ambala.