Mbanga sets new CANA Zone Africa record

Zara Mbanga won gold in Luanda, Angola

Uganda’s national swim team collected its highest number of medals ever at the highly-billed CANA Africa Zone IV swimming championships in Luanda, Angola, last week, beating many people’s expectations.

Zara Mbanga and Peyton Suubi led the Ugandan swim team when they both won 11 of Uganda’s 12 medals at the championship. In collecting 12 medals, Uganda’s team of only seven swimmers (the others were Darin Zaabu, Peterson Inhensiko, Natalie Sanford, Makula Kyabayinze, and Alisha Tino) became the most successful ever at this continental meet.

And yet this was the smallest number of swimmers to be sent to these championships in the last five years and, on paper, by far the weakest.

However, the team beat the odds by digging deep to put up a performance for the record books, winning five individual gold medals, two silver medals, and five bronze medals, finishing eighth out of 13 countries.

The countries that participated were South Africa, Zambia, Namibia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Eswatini, Botswana, Mauritius, Seychelles, Swaziland, Lesotho, Uganda and the hosts Angola.

With the country’s top swimmers such as Kirabo Namutebi, John Kafumbe, Tara Kisawuzi, Karimah Katemba preferring to sit out this championship, the burden to carry the team fell on the young shoulders of Zara Mbanga, 11, and Peyton Suubi, 12, who turn out for Jaguar Swim Club and are classmates at Watoto Christian International School.

Peterson Inhensiko, 14, making his third appearance at this meet, was expected to tap into his experience to push the team forward. Sanford, Makula, and Tino were making their first appearance for Uganda at these championships, and the expectation of them was to make personal best times, which they did.

Zaabu had been to this meet before although he faced tough competition from the boys in the 15-16 age group. Zara Mbanga got the team to a flying start when she won Uganda its first gold medal on the morning of day one in the 50-metre breaststroke.

Alisha Tino, a teammate at Jaguar swim club, also nearly made it to the podium but was only one second short. If this was Uganda’s idea of sending a statement of intent at these championships, Mbanga’s gold medal win was a clear message that the team meant business.

With national team coach Olivier Nalwadda on deck, the swimmers began an aggressive hunt for medals. On the second day of the championship, Mbanga and Suubi both made it to the podium after their performance in the 200-metre breaststroke for girls aged 11-12.

In that race, Mbanga’s gold medal win in a time of 2:58.56 saw her break the meet record by more than half a second, which had been set by Mauritius’ Alicia Kok Shun in 2017.

In breaking the record, Mbanga became the only second Ugandan swimmer to hold a record at this championship, with the other being Kirabo Namutebi, who owns the 50-metre freestyle in the girls 13-14 age group.

From thereon, it rained medals in Uganda’s camp. Suubi used her high endurance levels to win a gold medal in the 200-metre butterfly in the girls’ age group of 14 and under. While Mbanga swept all her breaststroke races. Inhensiko won a bronze medal in the highly- contested 50-metre freestyle.

The performance of the team is likely to send a message to the Uganda Swimming Federation to lobby for support for the sport. Many swimmers did not make the trip because of the costly expense attached to it.

Those who made the trip could have been excused for being blown away by the jaw-dropping facilities in Angola. The Ugandan swimmers train and compete in 25-meter pools. Uganda does not have a 50-meter pool.

That seven swimmers could put up such a performance tells of the potential of the sport. But now the main task for the USF is to make it as less expensive for parents as possible if the country is to send bigger numbers at this event.

The CANA Zone IV championship offers the most competitive platform for swimmers seeking to compete at the overall Africa championships, which are due later this year.

Source: The Observer

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