By Queenster Nartey
Ham Serunjogi ’16 is an intended Computer Science major and varsity swimmer. In Summer 2010 he was selected to represent his country, Uganda, in the first-ever Youth Olympics, held in Singapore. In this interview, he shares his experiences and thoughts about having achieved such a high honor in his swimming career.
When did you become interested in swimming?
My older brother was going [to a] swimming club at school. He was about six. He went swimming one day, and then he drowned in the pool—but he survived. As a result of that, he didn’t want to go back again. But my dad pulled him to go back, and through that process I was also introduced to the pool. I started swimming once in a while and then, when I was six years old, I started doing competitive swimming with rigorous training and I haven’t looked back since. So it’s close to 12 years of competitive training.
Were there times that you felt like quitting?
Yeah! So many times! The hardest thing I had to deal with was the society I was swimming in. People weren’t accustomed to having an extracurricular activity in Uganda. Most people came to school and went back home. It was difficult socially and psychologically… I’ve made some big sacrifices; I don’t go out at all. So in that sense, I don’t have a social life. I have to watch what I eat [and am] on a very strict diet. Swimming was very demanding because it’s something you do every day, [besides] the physical toil it has on your body. My dad would ask ‘What would you do if you weren’t swimming? What would you be?’ And that was a tough question, because swimming has taken me several places. Swimming is like my job, and it has its rewards, so I’ve learned to deal with it.
Could you take us back to how it felt like when you found out you qualified for the Youth Olympics?
It was actually a process, it wasn’t like one morning ‘Oh my God!’ The Swimming Federation in Uganda called my dad and asked how old I was, to see if I was within the acceptable range… I actually just made it because the cutoff was December 1993, and I was born in December 1993. So if I was born any later, I wouldn’t have made it. That was the first step. Two weeks later, they called my dad and said that my Swimming Federation had endorsed me to take part in the Youth Olympics. At that time, I was the leading swimmer in my country, not just for my age group, [but] across the board and I was about 15 or 16 years old. The day that the phone call came, I was about to go for my training session and I was in one of those down moods like ‘I don’t want to do this today.’ But that call recharged my batteries. It was very exciting. Being a part of it was extraordinary.
What is something that happened at the Youth Olympics that you’ll never forget?
I met lots of people who were equally excited as I was. There was this one race I had, with Andarii Govorovi–– he’s Ukrainian. I swam against him and he won the race. He actually went on to swim at the World Championships and got a silver medal. So [for] me to swim against that guy in particular was extraordinary. That’s an opportunity I don’t think I’ll ever get again in my life again. And I also met Chad le Clos, the guy that beat Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly in the London Olympics. He was in the Youth Olympics and I swam against him, too. We’ve been friends ever since.
Did you make any friends that you still talk to now?
Actually my Facebook account has a list called ‘Olympians’. And those are the people I’ve met in the Youth Olympics! I keep in touch with most of them. Prior to the Youth Olympics, I was in the All-Africa Games—the build-up to the Youth Olympics. It was like a preparation stage, and I met people that went on to the Youth Olympics with me. I still speak [with] many of them—Kenyans, Ukrainians, all of them.
What are your goals as you continue swimming here in Grinnell?
My last year has been very demanding, [so] I haven’t trained since last year. I stopped swimming because I had my IB finals so I put my swimming on hold. I have huge expectations for myself this year. I just want to enjoy the sport [and] get back in shape. I’ve been fortunate enough to achieve most what I wanted. I wanted to be the best swimmer when I was 14, but I achieved it when I was 15. Right now I just want to enjoy the sport, and be part of the Grinnell team…it’s going to be fun.
Do you have any plans for next summer?
I think I want to go on a road trip with some first years, either this year or next year. Maybe to a few states—New York. In terms of swimming, I haven’t planned that far ahead yet. It’s a bit early, but at this point that’s what I would like to do.
Now that you’ve competed in the Youth Olympics, should we keep an eye out for you in Rio 2016?
Oh my gosh! You’re not the first person that asked me that. You don’t just go to the Olympics like that. It takes a different kind of commitment. Thinking about what I did to prepare for the Youth Olympics, doing that again, but even harder. So it’s not something I cannot achieve. But to achieve that it would take a lot from me, my friends, my coach, my support network. I’m not ruling it out completely but I’m not putting all my efforts on that. It would be like a double privilege to go also to Rio. Let me just say that I will do my best.