Sarah Nambawa celebrates her African Triple Jump title (Sande Bashaija) © Copyright
Sarah NAMBAWA, Uganda (Triple Jump, Long Jump)
Born: Kampala, Uganda
Height: 165cm (5’5”)
Coach: Andrew Owusu
Sarah Nambawa has had several tribulations in her career that would have forced any faint-hearted athlete into early retirement. But no condition is too unbearable to make Nambawa abandon the sport she loves most. Thanks to her enduring and resilient character, Nambawa is now the Africa triple jump champion. “It hasn’t been easy getting where I am now,” Nambawa said after winning Uganda’s only gold medal at the Africa Senior Championships in Nairobi, Kenya on August 1.
That Nambawa went ahead to do her lap of honour when everyone else in Nyayo stadium was standing still singing the Kenyan national anthem during a medal ceremony, proved how she was thrilled by her 13.95 metre-winning jump. “I was in my own world. I didn’t care about what was going on in the stadium,” she recalled after relegating Nigerians Nkiruka Domike (13.71m) and Otonye Iworima (13.65m) to silver and bronze respectively. Nambawa couldn’t be faulted for her celebration. Not only was it her first major medal, but she also became the first Ugandan to triumph in horizontal jumps at continental level.
Yet, besides coming to the competition a few months after undergoing surgery, Nambawa was also uncertain of making the trip due to lack of an air ticket from America, where she has been based for the past four years as a student at Middle State Tennessee University (MTSU). “I badly wanted to come and represent my country but the Uganda Athletics Federation (UAF) wasn’t willing to support me in my travels,” she said. “I tried to convince them that I would do well in Nairobi but they wouldn’t listen.”
Finally, Nambawa touched in her coffers and paid in the excess of 2,000 US dollars for an air ticket to Kampala and linked up with the national team days before they travelled to Nairobi by road. If the12-hour journey to Nairobi wasn’t distressing enough, the fact that very few Ugandans believe in her was. “I think it’s only my coach (Andrew Owusu), who believed I could win a medal,” noted Nambawa.
Coach Owusu, the Africa Championships men’s record holder (17.23m), made the long trip to Nairobi to be by Nambawa’s side as she won gold in only her second attempt. The Ghanaian coach wasn’t surprised, but many were left in awe by Nambawa’s post- knee injury display. “Most observers marvel at how quickly she recovered. She had surgery in late February and did not resume regular training until the end of the third week in March. Indeed, her success this year was due to a lot of hard work, dedication and persistence on her end and from the medical staff at MTSU,” coach Owusu, an assistant professor in the department of Health and Human Performance at the university, said.
Many, including her team mates in the USA, had counted her off after the injury and advised her to quit. They told her doing triple jump after surgery would be a very risky adventure, but she never listened. Before she left Uganda in December 2006, Nambawa had encountered harsher challenges and getting back in top shape after injury was the least of her worries. “If I were still based in Uganda, I wouldn’t be performing like this. In any case, I think I would have quit, she reminisced.
Prior to 2006, Nambawa was one of three top female sprinters in the country. She competed in all sprint races and did both horizontal jumps once in a while. But like her other counterparts, she lacked good coaches and international exposure. “At times we would fail to get something to eat and transport back home after training,” Nambawa remembered. “Life was very difficult.”
While she has been an athlete since 1990, Nambawa announced her arrival on the national scene six years later when she represented St. Jude Primary School at the district competitions in Kabarole, western Uganda. She won 100m, 200m and 400m races. It was not until 1998 that Nambawa started doing horizontal jumps, after she had joined Bright Way High School. Still, jumping was secondary because sprinting took the better part of her time. Her displays at Bright Way attracted the attention of Masindi Academy, a sports powerhouse at the time, who offered her a scholarship for the remaining part of her secondary education. At Masindi, Nambawa became a big-time star on the local scene and dominated school competitions. “I achieved quite a lot at Masindi. I won almost every sprint race and even if you went there now, they would tell you about me,” Nambawa stated.
After completing secondary education, she was offered a scholarship to pursue a Bachelors Degree in Business Administration at Ndejje University in July 2005. She went ahead to represent Uganda at the World University Games in Izmir, Turkey, where she finished fifth in the 200m heats with a time of 25.66 seconds.
The following year, Nambawa claimed the scalps of the then national champion, Justine Bayigga, to win 100m gold at the national university games. But even after producing that scintillating display, authorities were unwilling to include Nambawa on the team to represent Uganda at the Africa University Games held in South Africa. She was kept in the cold, but was later handed a ticket at the last minute. Interestingly, Nambawa anchored the Ugandan team to 4x400m relay gold and snatched an individual gold in the 400m flat race.
All the while, Dean Hayes, the MTSU head coach, was tracking her at the recommendation of former Ugandan team mate Timothy Makubuya, who was also studying at the university. Before she could complete her first year at Ndejje, the runner was offered a scholarship at MTSU, but had to go to America as an 800m runner. Whereas switching to 800m wasn’t too much of a nightmare, travelling to America was. While in transit from JF Kennedy Airport to Nashville, Nambawa experienced the worst coldness in her life. “I forgot my jacket in the luggage and had to sit in the waiting lounge for over four hours. I froze,” she remembered. At Nashville she also experienced some other anxious moments as coach Hayes didn’t come to pick her up until after 40 minutes.
On reaching America, life was completely different. The food, accent and people were completely strange. To make matters worse, it was Christmas time and Nambawa unsurprisingly fell home sick. She missed home but made sure she talked to her family members on the phone. Apart from getting lost on campus pretty often during the first few weeks, Nambawa was too scared to ask questions in class and would only approach lecturers for help privately.
In 2007, Nambawa started competing for MTSU over 800m and 400m. The sprints and middle distance coaches at the university both wanted a share of her time, which put Nambawa is a small dilemma. With a Personal Best (PB) of 11.70m, Nambawa approached coach Owusu and expressed her interest in triple jump. “With the permission of the head coach Hayes, I took Sarah under my wings and began working with her on her fundamentals and mechanics as it relates to running and jumping,” Owusu said. “A conscious decision was made to restrict her to running 400m or below, since running the 800m impeded her jumping performance. Over time, she explicitly expressed interest in primarily being a jumper, with the 400m and 200m being secondary events,” the coach noted.
In 2008, Nambawa was voted Most Outstanding Field Performer at the Sun Belt indoor Championships after winning triple jump, finishing second in long jump and coming eighth in 400m. She also finished 8th in the NCAA Indoor Championships with 13.37.
In 2009, she was again was voted Most Outstanding Field Performer at the Sun Belt indoor and outdoor Championships, and she also achieved three NCAA finals. First in the indoor championships she place tenth in the long jump (6.17) and second in the triple jump (13.51), while outdoors she was third in triple jump (13.79). At the end of May in Louisville, she leaped to 13.94m, a personal best and national record.
She again represented Uganda at the 2009 World University Games, held in Belgrade, where she capped her outstanding year, finishing 11th in long jump with a 6.06m effort, after improving her PB to 6.32 in qualifying. She also finished sixth in triple jump after recording 13.58 metres on her final attempt.
Her star continued to rise but a tragedy lay in waiting. During a training session in December 2009, Nambawa’s right knee snapped. She received treatment for some time but it was later revealed that the injury could only be treated by surgery. “I was very scared of the surgery because it was the first time,’ she remembered. “Some friends comforted me and prayed for me before I was taken to hospital. That gave me strength.”
It was in February that Nambawa’s knee was worked on. She had to move with the support of crutches for about two weeks and only returned to training in late March. Though most of her colleagues advised her to quit triple jump after that ordeal, the Ugandan queen never bought their ideas. She was back on the runway in mid-April, improving steadily up to the NCAA Championships where she finished second with 13.66.
She followed this with gold in Nairobi and now has a chance of making a mark on the international scene during the IAAF Continental Cup due 4-5 September in Split, Croatia. Nambawa is one of three Ugandans on the African team heading to Croatia, the others being Moses Kipsiro and Benjamin Kiplagat.
“It’s a very big and exciting challenge for me,” Nambawa said of her opportunity to face the world’s best in Split. “My target is to at least jump over 14 metres.” And coach Owusu is backing his athlete to continue improving. “I think Sarah has the potential to jump 14.60 and 14.80m in the next two to three years given the right level of support,” he offered.
Although hailing from a non-sporting family, Nambawa seems to have dedicated all her energy to sports. After completing her Community and Public Health course at the university next May, she hopes to return and support fellow athletes back home.
Nambawa’s mother, Immaculate Namutebi, is a housewife while her father, Paul Kabanda is a businessman based in Kampala. Having spent at least four years out of town, Nambawa at times requires a guide to find her way on Kampala streets.
Triple Jump: 13.95m (NR) (2010)
Long Jump: 6.35m (NR) (2009) / 6.36m indoor (2009)
400m: 55:43 55:41 (2008)
200m: 24:74 (2009)
Triple Jump: 2006; 11.78m; 2007: 12:77m (NR); 2008: 13.43m (NR); 2009:13.94m (NR); 2010: 13.95m (NR)
2005: 5th World University Games (200m)
2006: 1st Africa University Games (400m)
2006: 1st National University Games (100m)
2006: 1st Africa University Games (4x400m relay)
2008: 8th NCAA Indoor Championships (Triple Jump)
2008: 12th NCAA Championships (Triple Jump)
2009 10th NCAA Indoor Championships (Long Jump)
2009 2nd NCAA Indoor Championships (Triple Jump)
2009 3rd NCAA Championships (Triple Jump)
2009: 11th World University Games (Long Jump)
2009: 6th World University Games (Triple Jump)
2010 2nd NCAA Championships (Triple Jump)
2010 1st African Championships (Triple Jump)
Prepared by Sande Bashaija for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. Copyright IAAF 2010