Sierra Leone: A Swim and a Dive – Sierra Leone’s Olympic Hope Unveiled

It is a wet and dry Monday in many parts of the capital Freetown, and the atmosphere at the country's only standard sporting venue, the National Stadium, is a sportive one in all areas despite it is the raining season.

Just at the entrance of the main stadium gate you will see the handball national team in training session at their handball court, so too a local non-division squad at the grassless stadium practicing field.

Moving to the west part of the stadium, splash! splash! splash! goes the green water, as national swimmers have their normal training sessions at the only pool, which is less than the standard for international competition.

"Push harder Buntu, not that way, stay focus, wow, that's it but it remains five side kicking and seven more stream line lateral kicks for this session," the exact words of national Coach Bobson Mansaray as he continues his Olympic preparation with a teenager whom he spotted four years ago while she was at the Annie Walsh Memorial School as a Junior Secondary Scholl (JSS) II pupil.

Despite the zest from the swimmers and their coaches, the atmosphere at the pool was less attractive or encouraging. The only motivation for the two young national swimmers Rio bound was Coach Mansaray, the association's general secretary, Mohamed Turay, and technical director Victor Carew. On the far end, few young boys and girls mingle around the pool, waiting for the opportunity to enjoy swimming as a pleasure, while few other grown up men are spotted collecting entrance fees from the pleasure swimmers.

For 20 years, Sierra Leone has failed to participate in the Olympic Games swimming event. This is not a surprise as the only facility in the country paints a depressing picture of neglect. The swimming association itself lacks motivation and inspiration. But Osman Kamara and Bunturabie Effuah Rashida Jalloh and their highly committed trainer are far from being undaunted.

The Olympic bound duo is training hard under Coach Mansaray. "We know only hard training session and keeping working hard will help them achieve their dreams in Rio," the swimming coach says.

Despite all odds, the Rio games would be an historic competition for not only Coach Mansaray and the rest of the Sierra Leone Swimming, Diving and Water Polo Association (SLSDWA), but the young teenager who was born and continue to be raised single handedly by her mother, Teresa A. Russell.

Bunturabie's pathway to stardom was never predicted, but it has been fast and unimaginable as she does not only became Sierra Leone's first ever female Olympic Games qualifier and the country's 50m national breaststroke record holder, but also the first ever swimming teenager to represent Sierra Leone in an Olympic Games.

"We never saw this coming so soon, for an individual who was spotted as a non-swimmer from the classroom she proved to be a God-given talent and a blessing for Sierra Leone," says the former national swimmer, who is so pleased with the impact of the Development of National Sports Structures Swimming project.

For Coach Mansaray, the man with the bull's eye who is now providing his technical ability and experience as a coach, he says in 2011/2012 International Swimming Federation (FINA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) through the National Olympic Committee of Sierra Leone (NOC-SL) sponsored and supported the swimming association in implementing the 'Development of National Sports Structures Swimming project in Sierra Leone'.

It was this nationwide project that produced Bunturabie and other members of the current Sierra Leone swimming national team that won bronze medals in the 4A�200 Freestyle, 4A�100 Freestyle and in the 4A�100 medley relays for men at the fifth African Zone 2 Swimming Championships in Dakar, Senegal.

According to secretary-general Turay, the project was successful, thanks to swimming trainer Mario Franchi. The Italian was contracted by the association to lead a nationwide scouting and training of male and female swimmers from the age of three.

Turay asserts that: "The Development of National Sports Structures Swimming project was a blessing for swimming in Sierra Leone and we are now seeing the actual benefit. It was mainly talent identification and we were able to get things right especially with the results we are getting now from those who were spotted during the running of the project."

For Buntu, sport runs in the family. Her mother played basketball and netball. Her half-sister Mutdette Leers, who is based in Germany, has been a constant source of inspiration. It is not a surprise why she is very relaxed at training and showing a rapid improvement in her performance.

Even the hard working and energetic single parent mother admitted: "Her sister is one key figure helping her to succeed; in fact she was the one who asked her what she loved best and after knowing about Buntu's love for swimming, she always sends in equipment for her or finance so we can buy some used equipment from overseas."

"My sister was a swimmer and sports enthusiast, she also plays football at lower level and I am grateful to her for the words of courage, motivation and financial support," Buntu explains as she wipes her head after coming out of the pool, beaming with confidence.

Hope of reaching the Olympic Games was something not in the teenagers sight so soon, especially so when she made her first bow in the pool three years back at age 15, during the first edition of the Dr. K. K. Bangura Memorial Swimming Championships at the stadium swimming pool.

Unlike other athletes who could have been faced with tournament fright, it was Dr. K. K. Bangura Memorial Swimming Championships that served as a springboard for the then Annie Walsh Memorial School SSS (Senior Secondary School) One pupil.

Tall, slim and dark, Buntu's path to the Games came as a complete surprise. She was just 15 when she made her debut in a national event. She displayed nerves of steel during the Dr K.K. Bangura Memorial championships. Her contemporaries would have had stage fright. It didn't take long for the swimming association to take notice after her outstanding performance in the 50m freestyle and breast-stroke, backed up by FINA recognising her national records.

Her successful debut season in the pool immediately gave the now Bilingual High School SSS 4 pupil her first opportunity to represent the national colours in international competition, and it was at a high stage - the World Swimming Championship, which was hosted in Kazan, Russia, from 28 July to 8 August 2015.

Age and experience were not in her favour when she made her international debut in Kazakhstan last year at the World championship. A special training programme was designed for her to be in top shape.

The swimming association secretary admitted: "Before going to Kazan we knew Buntu was a very young and talented girl, but she needed the technical and physical know-how to compete with other swimmers so we tasked the technical staff to design special training for her just to get her in shape and fit for the competition because it was her first international competition."

What was presumed to be a test case and talent exposure or experience buying for the determined youngster turned out to be the unthinkable dream for Bunturabie, who together with Osman Kamara booked their qualification to the Rio Games, making the association become the first discipline in Sierra Leone to reach the 2016 Rio Games.

"When I started my swimming training, I could recall in one of my conversation with my mother, I told her that one day I will represent Sierra Leone in the Olympic Games, but I was not sure which of the Olympic Games and the truth is that the Rio Games was not in my dream nor my focus," the 18-year-old, who skipped the athletes track for the swimming pool, reveals.

Jalloh's success came as a surprise to many, including the national team coach, who admitted that they were worried she could be disqualified during the World Championship because of inexperience.

"Her achievement came as big surprise to us, we were not even thinking of making it to the Olympic Games because before going to Kazan for the World Championship we were hoping she could perform well in the pool and go by all the criteria for her not to be disqualified," admits the former swimmer, who himself missed the opportunity to represent Sierra Leone in an Olympic game.

Sports Journalist Ishmeal Sadiu Kanu was taken aback by the teenager's historic performance. Kanu had the opportunity to watch Bunturabie in action for the first time in December 2015 when his association partnered with the swimming body to organise the second edition of the Dr. K. K. Bangura Memorial Swimming Championship.

For the journalist, the youngster's success story shows there are lot of talents in Sierra Leone who need to be tapped at a tender age. "This is clear evidence that if given the opportunity, Sierra Leonean youngsters can spring surprise at the biggest level. Bunturabie is a gifted and talented athlete, with three to four years in the sport she breaks all record and write history. This implies we have more talent like her."

The proud Mother Russel says the feeling of seeing her daughter achieve success in sports was always in sight, though she was not expecting it so soon.

Furthermore, her open door policy is said to be a contributing factor to her kid's success in the sport. According to the civil servant, she always treats her daughters like friends and younger sisters.

"I don't just behave like a hard parent to them; I am always, therefore, treat them like younger ones and friends. It is from our interaction I deeply know that she is destined to succeed," the former handball national team player says.

The role of Madam Russel in her daughter's success does not go unnoticed by the swimming association as it was confirmed by their scribe that the mother, if not always, but will most times follow her daughter to give her moral support in local competitions and even training.

"She is always spotted on the stands cheering up the kid and after any race she always renders words of courage and motivation to her. This is something we are not seeing from many parents," says Mohamed Turay.

Despite the success, the 18-year-old swimmer is battling with a great force, education and sports, a situation which is uncommon amongst Sierra Leonean athletes. Some may prefer to drop one - schooling or sport.

For love and passion for the sport, Bunturabie changed school from the Annie Walsh Memorial School to the Bilingual High School, a decision which was taken to adjust her training schedule with her studies. It should not be surprise to see her training and studying at the Olympic Games because immediately after the Rio assignment, Bunturabie will be facing her educational assignment - the West Africa Senior Secondary School Examination (WASSCE) - in September.

"For me, it is nothing like a challenge because I am coping well with my studies and training session without any divided attention. Before it was difficult for me that was while I was at the Annie Walsh, but now after school I always report for training and after training session I have enough resting time to study for my WASSCE Exams," Bunturabie explains.

The teenage sensation's amalgamation of school and swimming is what the association is also using to take the sport to schools as she is used as the association's ambassador not only to convince student to choose the sport, but also potential female swimmers.

She adds: "I always use myself as example in helping the association to attract more school pupils to the sport, and one of the messages I always say to them is that I am an example, my grades are always good because I have time for my studies and sport."

Even the mother admits that she always insists on her schooling and to avoid problems with her education and the sport, that is why she decided to switch schools. Another individual who confirms Bunturabie is very much outstanding in her education is close friend Olive Kamara.

"She always scores good grades in exams and has never repeated in a single class," Kamara says, adding that she could have followed Bunturabie' footstep but she is not into sports and not gamesome.

Another challenge she quickly dismissed was finding herself in a male dominated sport, an environment she admits using as a motivating factor towards her development and growth in the sport.

"I always train with the boys and challenge them, doing so help me a lot with my performance and parties. I have never faced any harassment or the likes because I am self-sufficient and know what my goal is," she says.

Even her mother is not scared of letting her kid battle against males. For the mother, males and females in sports must compete together as she believes that "what men can do, women can also do it better."

The Olympic Game is here, with barely days to go. Sierra Leone's hopes of winning its first Olympic medal still hangs in the balance and even the trailblazing Bunturabie cannot assure the nation of one in Rio.

"My aim at Rio is to improve on my time and write my name in the hall of fame," she says, adding that her focus after the Olympic Games is to maintain and keep improving on her performance to be the next swimming star from the African continent.

Even the SLSDWA secretary general is not hopeful of a medal, but did leave room for surprise. "This is sports and in sports anything can happen. This is her first Olympic games and our focus is to let her improve on her time but if winning comes we believe she will achieve that and it could be a tournament high for our association, the teenager and Sierra Leone as a nation."

While Bunturabie and the Swimming Association would be making history in Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Sierra Leone still searches for its first Olympic medal.

Source: Concord Times

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