'I took a deep breath, took off from the blocks and said, this is it,' said Para swimmer Husnah Kukundakwe, who at 14, is the youngest athlete to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games and Uganda's only classified elite Para swimmer.
Para swimmer Husnah Kukundakwe has been a standout star of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. At just 14, the schoolgirl was the youngest athlete out of the more than 4,400 competing and the only swimmer to represent Uganda. She is currently the only classified Para swimmer in her country and only the second Ugandan to compete in the sport at a Paralympics since the first in Sydney 2000.
Kukundakwe competed in the women’s 100m breaststroke SB8 alongside her idol Ireland’s Ellen Keane, 26, who won the race. The young athlete came sixth in her heat, where she set a personal best time, and has since said she had achieved her dream of “officially becoming a Paralympian”.
The realisation of her achievement was brought home when she was invited to sit alongside Paralympic champions at a press conference ahead of the Games. “I feel like I am sitting with movie stars,” she admitted, about the athletes, who included Germany's long jump legend Markus Rehm, Italy's wheelchair fencing champion Beatrice "Bebe" Vio, Mexico's superstar powerlifter Amalia Perez, the USA's two-time Paralympian Matthew Stutzman and Japan's OTA Shoko, who was competing taekwondo when it made its debut at the Games.
But it has been a long road to Tokyo 2020. Kukundakwe, who was born without a forearm and with a deformity in her left hand, has had to not only overcome her disability to get to the Paralympic Games but also discrimination from her earliest school days, her parents' struggles for funding and just finding an adequate pool to train in.
She talks to the Olympic Information Service about her inspirations, her biggest challenges and her ambitions.
Who have you looked up to as a sporting inspiration?
I've always looked up to women's [100m backstroke SB8 gold medallist ] Ellen Keane. She swims in my same class and she has a very similar disability that I have. When I get to see her at an international competition I always make sure I take a picture with her. I look up to her because she's very, very determined and she's really hard-working. She has been to four Paralympics and she never gave up until she finally got the gold medal here at Tokyo 2020. I want to be like her. I want to be persistent, I want to be resilient and work hard towards my goals.
What has been your biggest career challenge?
I train with able-bodied swimmers in Uganda, which is a challenge because it's hard to match their pace, but I always like to look at it as a way to get faster. They give me a higher pace, they make me swim faster. I'm usually swimming with people twice my age, with more experience than me.
I'm really happy to gain more experience, and also to gain this experience at international competitions. This requires a lot of funding and getting those funds isn't really easy for my mum, and she struggles to get them. Recently we've been helped a lot by well-wishers, the government really put in work to support us with uniforms and with just being here. But it's usually my parents and they have to struggle to look for the money. Even with the training fees and the pool fees, because accessing a good 25m pool in Uganda is very expensive since it's like in good hotels. I have been at this small training camp in preparation for the Paralympics for about two months, and the government paid for the hotel fees so that was amazing.
What has been your career highlight?
Participating in the Paralympic Games (at Tokyo 2020) because they started to call me 'Paralympian' some time ago. On the news they were like, 'Husnah, a Paralympian', and I wouldn't really feel good. I wouldn't feel satisfied with the title, but when I came here and I competed and officially got the title of a Paralympian, it now seems right. I feel like now I deserve the title. My career is only beginning right after this, and I can't wait to see how far the journey will go.
What has been your career lowlight?
I had a school competition at the age of six, and when I was there I was discriminated against. Then I didn't really know what discrimination was, I just felt like I was put aside, that I was supposed to be included in this kind of thing. So when it came time for my second race I was replaced by another girl because the teacher thought that I couldn't manage the stress, so she told me to just sit aside and let her swim. So, that made me feel really sad and I stopped swimming for a while. I tried the other sports. I loved football, but I realised that football wasn't really meant for me. I've always wanted to do swimming so after I started feeling more confident with the sport, I felt more opened up because in swimming you kind of don't have any clothes, and when I was at school I'd play football in a sweater, trying to hide my hand. But I got used to being open with myself and I realised that hiding was pointless. I need to show people whether they accept me or not, I don't really care.
What has been your best moment of Tokyo 2020?
Competing. I was really nervous. I was scared because I was sitting right across from my role models. I was mostly really excited. I was like, 'This is it, it's going to happen, you're here right now and oh my god, you're doing it'. Then when I go to the blocks, I took a deep breath and I said, 'This is it, you have to do your best'. I took off from the blocks and that was when it became real: I'm officially a Paralympian.