“When I started school, I was very shy. I’ll wear a sweater the whole day even if it’s hot, just to make sure I hide my hands. When I started swimming, people started to know me and I began to lose that shyness."
Husnah Kukundakwe used to try so hard not to stand out, that she would wear a sweater even in the heat of the Ugandan summer – just so she had sleeves to hide her arms in.
These days, she is making waves in the pool and standing out for it.
The 12-year-old – who competed at the World Series in Singapore back in May – is on a mission to reach the pinnacle of her sport, the Paralympics, through the London 2019 World Para Swimming Allianz Championships in September.
Few before her have managed to this feat, since Para swimmers from Africa are a rarity to begin with. There were just four female swimmers at the Rio 2016 edition; out of 593 swimmers who competed then, just 10 hailed from Africa.
Only one other Para swimmer from Uganda has made the quadrennial Games in the country’s history so far: Prossy Tusabe at the Sydney Games in 2000.
All this means Kukundakwe has had to train and compete alongside able-bodied swimmers, a challenge that initially caused her self-belief to take a hit.
“It’s hard. You have to put in more energy than they do in order to stay competitive,” she said. “But I got used to it and somehow it makes it easier to compete in Para swimming. I get more momentum and courage.”
No more sweaters
Kukundakwe has come a long way from being that shy little girl who did anything she could to hide the disability she was born with.
“When I started school, I was very shy. I’ll wear a sweater the whole day even if it’s hot, just to make sure I hide my hands,” she said.
“When I started swimming, people started to know me and I began to lose that shyness. I lost the sweater, forgot about it and started moving around the compound happy, not shy. Swimming has made me more confident.”
Still, Kukundakwe and her family continue to struggle with finding the financial support they need to put her on the road to the Paralympics.
She travelled to Singapore with only her mother, short of the funds needed to have her coach by her side too.
“I am a parent, she is an athlete. She spends more time training with her coach, not me. It’s unfortunate because we don’t understand anything that is happening [during competition]. It’s very challenging,” said Hashima Batamuriza, Kukundakwe’s mother.
London in 50 days' time
Whenever she needs a dose of inspiration, Kukundakwe takes her cue from a famed name in the pool: multiple Olympic champion and world record holder Katie Ledecky.
The young Ugandan has gone through countless videos of the US swimmer’s races on YouTube.
“She’s my role model. She started competing when she was very young. She was young and she was breaking records. I get the motivation to continue because I’m also very young and I want to be like Katie Ledecky,” the Ugandan swimmer said.
Kukundakwe is now targeting the World Championships in London, which kicks off in 50 days from now. It is another step she hopes will take her closer to her Paralympic dream.
“The only way that I can get [to the Paralympics] is by working harder.”
This spunky 12-year-old might be young, but she sure has big dreams, and is no longer afraid to stand out for them.
London 2019 will be the ninth edition of the World Para Swimming Championships, returning to Great Britain for the second time following the 2015 event in Glasgow. You can find tickets here.