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A lack of equipment and coaching hasn’t stopped software engineer Kathleen Noble from making history with landlocked Uganda

<i>Lee Jin-man/AP via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Kathleen Noble competes in the single sculls final at the Tokyo Olympics.
Lee Jin-man/AP via CNN Newsource
Kathleen Noble competes in the single sculls final at the Tokyo Olympics.

By Rory Fleming, CNN

(CNN) — From learning how to row in boats patched together with duct tape to competing at the world championships in a different sport entirely, Kathleen Noble’s rise to the apex of rowing has certainly been unconventional.

Her journey now sees the 29-year-old set to become a two-time Olympian – Noble represented Uganda at the Tokyo Games – when she competes at Paris 2024. She is Uganda’s first Olympic rowing participant, as well as the African nation’s first and only White Olympian across any sporting discipline.

A prodigious swimmer in her youth, Noble represented Uganda at the 2012 World Swimming Championships at just 17 years of age. Then, on a whim during her time as a student at Princeton University, Noble was convinced to try her hand at rowing.

“When I took my first steps into the sport, I had no thoughts or intentions of competing at a high level and certainly couldn’t have imagined that this would be the direction that things would go,” Noble tells CNN Sport.

“To be honest, it is still a bit surreal to be competing on a stage like this. I don’t think it was until they actually told me that Uganda wanted to send me to the Olympic qualifiers that I really thought, ‘Oh, okay, maybe there’s something here.’”

Equipment issues

The sport of rowing is still very much in its nascent stages across many parts of Africa, including Uganda.

It was properly introduced to the country back in 2009 when the World Rowing Federation sent out a shipment of donated boats to help to grow a sport which carries with it significant financial entry barriers.

It was on these boats that Noble learned to row skull (individual), as opposed to her time rowing crew (as a team in one boat) at university.

Whilst the thought of training on Lake Victoria, one of Africa’s Great Lakes and the world’s largest tropical lake, may bring with it a sense of charm and serenity, trying to prepare to compete at Olympic level just isn’t feasible given the lack of opportunities and investment afforded to rowing within Uganda, a reality which sees Noble now train out of Tennessee under former US rower James Martinez.

“There is no history of rowing in Uganda. I mean, I’m literally the first person, male or female, to even qualify for the Olympics,” Noble says. “It is still extremely niche, and the community is very small. I probably know every single rower in the country personally.

“Back in 2016, I took eight months off from university to row in Uganda and I’m so grateful that I did because I got to experience first-hand all the struggles that rowers back home go through on a daily basis.

“Not only is there a lack of competition and adequate coaching, but there is a lack of most basic essentials, such as having properly functioning equipment.

“When I was rowing on Lake Victoria, we were still using the boats donated back in 2009. We would be duct-taping them and trying to get people to patch them up with fiberglass for us.”

It is not just a lack of equipment which has hampered rowing’s growth in the east African country.

Governance is also a major issue, and the absence of proper oversight has seen many athletes leave the sport in recent times, according to Noble, due to “promises being made but not always being kept.”

The only way the sport has a chance to progress is through the help and funding from outside donors such as the World Rowing Federation.

Muhumuza Rodrick Chandi, the technical director of the Uganda Rowing Federation, tells CNN Sport that the price of equipment and a lack of coaches has been an issue in the country.

“It is true that there is a lack of coaches as most qualified ones have left Uganda in search of greener pastures,” he says. “Rowing, like most sports in Uganda, is voluntary, so once these coaches get better opportunities they migrate or leave the sport altogether.

“The Ugandan Rowing Federation does suffer from a lack of funding, mainly because it doesn’t get much budgetary support from the National Council of Sports as it’s considered a small sport.”

‘Honor’ representing Uganda

Born in Nakaseke, central Uganda, in 1994, Noble is the daughter of Irish missionaries.

“Uganda was a fantastic place to grow up in many ways, whether it be the great weather all year round or the friendly and cheerful nature of the people,” she recalls. “But as a White, blonde child, I maybe would have had an aversion to going out in public due to the amount of attention I’d have gotten.”

Despite her differences, of which Noble is acutely aware, sport has allowed her to form a deeper connection with her birthplace.

“Even though I have Ugandan citizenship, there is an identity to being Ugandan which is about coming from one of the local tribes and having land and a history and ancestors going back a long way,” she says.

“I respect that, but at the same time, I did grow up in Uganda. It’s a place that is important to me and it does mean a lot to me to have people accept me as being Ugandan.

“It’s a huge honor to represent my country. It’s been the way that I’ve felt the most connection to my identity as a Ugandan. Growing up there, when people ask you where you’re from, I would say Ireland, even though I was born and grew up there.

“But I feel like as I’ve gotten deeper into representing and rowing for the country, I have felt more strongly that I am Ugandan.”

Noble’s acceptance by Ugandan sports fans has also been a great source of encouragement.

While she says that she will occasionally receive the odd message on social media criticizing her for representing the country, the overwhelming majority of both fan and media messaging has been support and pride for raising the profile of Ugandan rowing.

“You’re always going to have haters and people who want to try to knock you down, that’s kind of to be expected in high level sport nowadays with social media … but I find it extremely touching that whenever I am met with negativity, a barrage of positivity will follow,” says Noble. “I’m very, very grateful for that.”

Platform for change

Noble, on top of her sporting ambitions, works as a software engineer in Tennessee and, alongside her husband, is a homesteader with a small-scale farm producing food and animals for themselves.

Like every athlete, she hopes that her Olympic journey will culminate atop the podium, but she does also head to Paris with a compelling sense of realism.

“Rowing is not really a sport where you wake up and just have a great day and row faster than you ever have before,” says Noble.

“It is a little bit more deterministic than that. Sports that are really based around cardiovascular strength tend to remove that element of major surprise around results. I’m not going to flat out say that my goal isn’t to medal, but at the same time I need to be realistic.”

Winning a medal is not the only means by which you can determine an Olympian’s success, though, with Noble hoping that her exposure during the Games can help to elevate rowing back in Uganda, ensuring that she is no longer its sole representative.

“I feel a sense of responsibility to try and help support athletes back home,” she says. “Whether that correlates to me having to do well, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I get a lot of press whether I come first or last.

“I believe that the actual position that I come is less important than the spotlight that exists around the Olympics. That gives me the platform to raise awareness about the limitations and struggles that athletes have in Uganda to a global audience.”

Rowing, particularly singles rowing, can be a very isolating sport, a fact that Noble can attest to.

But come July 26 when the Paris Games get underway, she will have the backing of an entire nation eager to witness what will, no matter the end result, be more Olympic history for Uganda.

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