Ugandan para-rowers aim for Rio20.03.2015
In a land of breathtaking beauty at the heart of the African continent, para-rowing is bringing new opportunities and a Paralympic challenge to Ugandans living with a disability.
Enhancing lives and ability beyond disability through para-rowing and producing para-rowers to compete and win at the highest levels is the dual vision of the Ugandan Para Rowing Federation (UPRF) and the dream of Noah Sewankambo, UPRF president and head coach.
Sewankambo understands that development and success are intimately connected and must be pursued jointly to grow and sustain the sport of para-rowing in Uganda.
Founded in 2006, the UPRF has made big leaps forward thanks to the efforts of Sewankambo and a growing international network of supporters. It has not been easy. The fight for equal opportunities for para-athletes in all sports is difficult across the region. Equipment is limited and much of it shared with the Ugandan Rowing Federation. Training sites are too far, too open, or too small. Chances for high level competition are minimal. But it is a rewarding challenge. Athletes and coaches are putting in all they can for a better community and a chance to make Uganda proud.
Last year, para rowing was included as an exhibition event at the East and Central African Rowing Championships, hosted in Uganda. This year Uganda will send four rowers, one coxswain and two coaches to a World Rowing para event in Gavirate, Italy (14-17 May), where athletes will receive medical classification and gain essential international experience racing in the LTA mixed coxed four boat class. The team will then have to qualify at the 2015 World Rowing Championships in order to go to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Qualifying a crew for Rio 2016 would be a dream come true for Sewankambo and the UPRF. “We are trying everything out on our own,” said Sewankambo. With some basic support from the World Rowing Federation, FISA, since 2009 for coaching clinics and development consultations, the list of Sewankambo’s international partners has continued to grow.
Jim Flood has delivered a number of coaching courses for World Rowing in Uganda since 2009 and has seen the progress being made by Sewankambo’s para-rowers first-hand. The UPRF “has a very clear sense of vision,” Flood said, which is needed because, “para-athletes are not always seen as equal in many African countries.”
Flood’s involvement has led to others becoming engaged even farther afield. A chance meeting between Jim and Betsy Trevarthen, Executive Director at the Chicago Rowing Foundation, a group dedicated to accessibility in rowing, has had major implications for Ugandan para-rowing.
“The Chicago Rowing Foundation has one of the strongest groups of para-rowers around the world,” said Flood. “I put them in touch with the UPRF.”
The idea was formed to establish an internet link between the groups to facilitate coaching and competition through Skype. Finding a laptop computer for Sewankamb’s team was the next challenge and another American, Rick Stavros of Massachusetts, made this happen.
Stavros, a long-time coach and experienced hand at equipment maintenance and repair, has also spent some time in Uganda working with both the URF and UPRF to repair and grow their fleet of shells and on-land equipment. Through selling tee-shirts in his local rowing community, Stavros raised enough funds to purchase a refurbished laptop as well as some para-specific equipment for the Ugandans. With the assistance of Hilary Epes, another American who has spent significant time in Uganda and worked with the rowers and para-rowers, the computer was delivered and the first Skype event with the Chicago Rowing Foundation took place on 20th February.
“We used an iPad with Skype to show the group in Uganda proper rowing technique in the various adaptive categories,” reported Betsy Trevarthen. “We pointed out the areas that we thought they should focus on for our next viewing.”
Arrangements for more Skype sessions and the possibility of online competition with para-rowers around the world mean that this initial partnership has opened up new horizons for the UPRF.
The way forward remains long for para-rowing in Uganda, but Sewankambo remains optimistic with boundless enthusiasm. “We don’t just want to go to participate,” he says, “but to win!” With determination such as this, along with a commitment to learn and grow in partnership with the international rowing community, Sewankambo’s words may prove true.