Olympian Maniraguha eyes return to competitive swimming but all is not well

Eloi Imaniraguha (L) and Johanna Umurungi, seen here at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Brazil, were the only Rwandan swimmers at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. File.

It’s a beautiful sunny day here in Karongi. Music is blasting from the powerful speakers installed at the beach by the neighbouring Golf Hotel. Bartenders are busy delivering drinks to their esteemed customers. The cool breeze from the lake is invigorating and the atmosphere is jovial.  

A handful of casual swimmers are taking it easy in the shallow side of the lake. Farther offshore, a young swimmer Eloi Maniraguha is working hard to sharpen his axe.

Although Eloi is putting in the work, he claims the Rwanda Swimming Federation has robbed him an opportunity to take his craft to the next level. “I don’t know if I will find another opportunity to compete,” says the 23 year old former Olympian. He sounds a little pessimistic.

Nevertheless, his work ethic hasn’t changed.

He started swimming at a tender age of 4. Growing up a stone throw away from Lake Kivu, Eloi spent a significant part of his childhood in the lake. At age 15, swimming had become more than a hobby to him.

Eloi Maniraguha takes a dive into Lake Kivu during a past training session. George Baguma.

Initially, his goal was to make it to the national team. He was inspired by older swimmers from the area who had achieved that feat. “When I saw swimmers from my neighbourhood representing Rwanda in international competitions, I knew I could do the same.”  

In 2012, he joined his hometown (Karongi) swimming club which introduced him to competitive swimming and an opportunity to showcase his talent at the national level.

When the Rwanda Swimming Federation staged qualifiers for the 11th FINA World Swimming Championships, he earned a spot on the national team’s roaster and proudly represented his country in Istanbul, Turkey. He came back home empty-handed but he was more determined than ever.

In 2013, Eloi participated in another global event, the 15th FINA World Aquatics Championships that took place in Barcelona, Spain. Although his 29-second butterfly dash wasn’t good enough to send him to the podium, he felt like he was making strides in the right direction.

When he returned home after his Barcelona experience, he resumed his regular training sessions in the lake. Two years later, he flew to Thailand to pursue an intensive training programme, courtesy of the International Swimming Federation (FINA).

While in Thailand, Eloi participated in the Thai National Swimming Championships and finished 4th from a pool of 9 competitors, recording 25 seconds in the 50m freestyle category. 

Eloi is grateful for the opportunity to train in Thailand but he is quick to mention that the conditions at the camp were difficult. “I spent a whole year without medical insurance and pocket money. Even getting a haircut was a challenge.”

Responding to Eloi’s grievances, Samuel Kinimba, the Rwanda Swimming Federation president, stressed that the scholarship was offered by FINA and Eloi’s family made an informed decision to accept its terms and conditions.

After completion of the programme in Thailand, Eloi participated in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics as a wild card invitee. According to Kinimba, the federation successfully sought assistance from the Rwanda National Olympics and Sports Committee (RNOSC) in a bid to facilitate Eloi’s preparations for the Olympics while still in Thailand.

His performance, according to Kinimba, in Brazil was far from impressive.

A year later, he won gold and silver medals in the CANA Zone III 50m freestyle and butterfly, respectively, and that was the last time he participated in any FINA-sanctioned competition.

Going by his side of the story, when he returned to Karongi, his former club didn’t exist anymore. He blames lack of sponsors for its demise. “I have been training regularly but I haven’t participated in any national competition since 2017.

The federation has completely abandoned me.”

About Eloi’s participation in the national competitions or lack thereof; Kinimba explained that it is because the swimmer is not a member of any club despite efforts (from the federation) to help him find one.

Kinimba said that the federation’s General Assembly recognises registered players who belong to existing clubs. “We organise trials every month and national competitions every after two months but when we do so, we invite clubs,” he noted.

Back to the beach, everyone is kicking back and relaxing on the sand but Eloi is pushing himself harder, propelling his long frame farther and farther. His dream is to return to competitive swimming and fly the Rwandan flag again.

editor@newtimesrwanda.com           

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