Uganda’s Husnah Kukundakwe competes during a heat in the women’s 100m breaststroke at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre in Tokyo on August 26, 2021. (Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP)
Teenage Ugandan swimmer Husnah Kukundakwe said she felt like she could “touch the clouds” after making her Paralympic debut Thursday — and hopes it could change attitudes towards disability in Africa.
Fourteen-year-old Kukundakwe, the youngest athlete at the Tokyo Games, swam in the women’s SB8 100m breaststroke, finishing sixth in her heat.
The Games are being shown on free-to-air broadcast in 49 African territories thanks to an International Paralympic Committee initiative, and Kukundakwe hopes her race could have a transformative effect.
“Africa in general will learn that people with disabilities are just like normal people, and they need to do whatever they want to do,” she said.
“I feel like I could even touch the clouds because I’m the youngest here, and just seeing how the others are doing and swimming with them is such an amazing experience.”
Kukundakwe said babies born with disabilities in Uganda are often abandoned by their parents, and she hoped the Paralympics would make them realise “the choice they made was really bad”.
“Maybe giving these kids a chance, when they see that they’re different from other people and they realise that they want to do something, sport can help them raise their confidence,” she said.
Kukundakwe was born without her right forearm and also has an impairment to her left hand.
She used to cover them with a baggy sweater when she was at school, but swimming gave her the confidence to overcome her shyness.
The Ugandan’s time was not fast enough to reach the final, but she said she was “really excited to get the official title of Paralympian”.
“When I go back home and people say Paralympian Husnah Kukundakwe, I will feel more real,” she said.
“This moment is real. At the Paralympics I have competed and I’m actually a Paralympian now.”
Kukundakwe said she was “really nervous” before the race, and admitted to being “star-struck” by the other swimmers in the warm-up area.
But she completed her race in a new personal-best time of 1min, 34.35sec, and vowed to improve as she works towards the 2024 Paris Games.
“It shows me how I’m progressing — just seeing how I’m progressing makes me want to progress more and keep moving until I get to the point where I can actually get a medal,” she said.
“I can’t wait to be in Paris because I like French as a subject. Maybe by then I will know fluent French.”
Kukundakwe said the experience of being at the Games had been “really amazing”, and she was looking forward to drinking fizzy soda now that her event was over.
But she said she still planned to make the most of her time in Tokyo before she has to go home and catch up with her schoolwork in Uganda.
“This is the start of my journey — I’m really excited to see how far I’ll go,” she said.
“Maybe later I’ll come back to watch the finals and see how these guys get medals. Just seeing these guys with more experience than I have will give me a vision of what I want to be when I’m older.”
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