It’s a beautiful sunny day here in Karongi. Music is blasting from the powerful speakers installed at the beach by the neighboring 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 couple of boats are ferrying tourists to the isles and a handful of casual swimmers are taking it easy near the shoreline. Farther offshore, a young swimmer namely Eloi Maniraguha is working hard to sharpen his axe.
Eloi is putting in the work but opportunities to take his craft to the next level aren’t coming his way anymore. He is clearly frustrated. Nevertheless, his work ethic hasn’t changed.
He started swimming at a tender age of 4. Growing up a stone throw away from Kivu, he was a regular fixture in the lake. At age 15, swimming had become more than a hobby to him.
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 neighborhood representing Rwanda in international competitions, I knew I could do the same."
In 2012, he joined his hometown swimming club which introduced him to organized 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 Championship, he earned a spot on the national team’s roster and proudly represented his country in Istanbul, Turkey. He came back home empty-handed but more determined than ever. Having attained his childhood goal, he set a more ambitious one - bringing home an Olympic medal.
In 2013, Eloi participated in another global event, the 15th FINA World Aquatics Championship 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 towards the right direction.
When he returned home after his Barcelona experience, he resumed his regular training in the lake. Two years later, he was awarded a scholarship by FINA, the sport’s international governing body.
As a beneficiary of FINA’s scholarship, Eloi spent a year at the state-of-the-art Thanyapura Health and Sports Resort undergoing intensive training. While in Thailand, he participated in the Thai National Swimming Championship and finished 4th from a pool of nine competitors, recording 25 seconds in the 50m freestyle category.
After completion of the program in Thailand, he participated in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics as a wild card invitee. His performance in Rio wasn’t impressive but words of encouragement from the best swimmers in the world, including Michael Phelps, fueled his motivation.
A year later, he won gold and silver medals in the CANA Zone III 50m freestyle and butterfly respectively but that was the last time he participated in any FINA-sanctioned competition.
The 23-year-old former olympian claims the federation has robbed him a chance to keep chasing his dream. "I work hard every day but the federation won’t let me participate in trials and competitions." He laments.
Samuel Kinimba, president of the Rwanda Swimming Federation has something to say about Eloi’s participation in official competitions or lack thereof; "We invite clubs, not individuals. Eloi is not a member of any club despite our persistent efforts to help him find one. All he needs to do is join one of the registered clubs. We have been trying to make this happen but he is not cooperative."
Eloi thinks operating solo doesn’t forfeit his right to compete. "I am a swimmer, not a football player. Yes, I need a coach and teammates but with or without them, I should be invited. I would love to be in a team but currently, there is none in Karongi. My old club doesn’t exist anymore. Lack of sponsorship led to its demise." He told me.
It’s a weekend and beach goers are kicking back, relaxing and sipping their favorite drinks but Eloi is pushing himself harder and harder, propelling his long frame farther and farther. Despite a dark cloud of uncertainty, his dream is still alive.
The author is an adventurer on a mission to discover what Rwanda has to offer. Follow his awe-inspiring journey on this blog and ikazerwandatours.com.