Lightweight single sculler Gerald Ssemambo of Uganda poses for a photo at the 2013 World Rowing Championships in Chungju, Korea.

Uganda received a container of boats four years ago with the aim of building a team for the 2012 London Olympics. Maimi Beach in Luzira near the capital city of Kampala became the base.

Jim Flood, coach for FISA’s development programme, recently visited Uganda and noted that President Hamza Kahawa had set clear objectives with the backing of Uganda’s National Olympic Committee. There are plans to develop other clubs around Kampala and Para-rowing has been established.

Uganda did not make it to the London Olympics in rowing, but they now have Gerald Ssemambo representing the nation. The 20 year old from Kampala was the first Ugandan to race at a World Rowing Championships when he lined up in the lightweight men’s single sculls at the 2012 World Rowing Championships in Plovdiv.

Ssemambo’s foray into rowing began when he was swimming in Lake Victoria which is near to where he lives.

“One day the national rowing coach came to me and said, ‘Oh, I saw you swimming, why don’t you try out rowing?’ One month later,” says Ssemambo, “I rowed at the National Championships and I also started at the Kenyan Championships but man – those guys were so fast.”

Ssemambo, who began rowing in 2011, was at this year’s World Rowing Championships in Chungju where he and his coach Brock Sampson talked to World Rowing about his path to Chungju via Facebook and the Netherlands.

Gerald Ssemambo of Uganda during the heat of the lightweight men’s single sculls at the 2013 World Rowing Championships in Chungju, Korea.

World Rowing: How did you end up in the Netherlands?
Gerald Ssemambo:
Facebook was a big help. I was searching on Facebook for a guy from the Netherlands called Tomas who rowed in the Dutch men’s eight. He used to work in Kenya. When I searched for Tomas, another Tomas from the Netherlands – Tomas Friedhoff – popped out in the Facebook search. We became friends on Facebook and after some chatting and back and forth he helped me to come to Amsterdam and to find good training facilities.

He also organised my accommodation in a student residence especially for athletes. Without his help and without the help of the Dutch Rowing Federation most of this would probably not have been possible.

WR: Where did you train and live before coming to Chungju?
I came to Europe at the end of May. My first starting-point in Europe was Amsterdam and I stayed there until I came here to Chungju. I didn’t have a boat for the first month and a half so I had to train on the erg for a while. We were then able to find a boat.
WR: Brock, you are Gerald’s coach. How did this happen?
Brock Sampson:
Facebook! I read an article about Gerald’s story after he rowed in Plovdiv at the World Rowing Championships last year. I can’t really remember where I found this article but I was so impressed by his story. I searched him on Facebook and we became friends. I asked him ‘So, do you have a coach? How are your training circumstances?’ and I found out that he didn’t have any boat, any coach, any funding, erg or whatever.

Gerald Ssemambo of Uganda races in the lightweight men’s single sculls heat at the 2013 World Rowing Championships in Chungju, South Korea.

With Tomas Friedhoff’s help we were able to make Gerald come over to Europe. When he arrived he literally didn’t have anything. I picked him up at the bus station and he was wearing just a shirt and flip flops – it was really cold in the Netherlands back in May. I rather felt a bit like Gerald’s big brother or dad.  

I was always impressed by Gerald’s attitude. His environment back home in Uganda is so different and it was a big change for him to live and train in Europe but he is so focused on his training. He is very good at absorbing new information, on and off the water.

Gerald is a very good example of an athlete from a development country. It might take them more time to get to the same level as other athletes but they can all make it. It just needs time, heart and infrastructure. They deserve all of this as any other athlete does.

WR: How do you organise your funding?
Brock helped me out with a lot. Also the Greenbelt Rowing Club (Ssemambo’s club in Uganda) helped me and paid the flight to Amsterdam and the accommodation there.

WR: What are your plans for the future?
The big aim is to find a partner for the lightweight men’s double and to participate in the Olympics in 2016. But from now on I think in small steps. After Chungju I will row at the African Championships in Tunis in October.