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Achieng goes against the flow

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Tom Fordyce | 08:15 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

What was the biggest decision you made as a 13-year-old?

I think mine was deciding to spend my life savings on a 6ft x 3ft snooker table from Argos. My sister got her ears pierced, in direct contravention of parental orders. My colleague Ben Dirs borrowed his elder brother's prize Paul Smith suit trousers without permission and got punched on the nose when he returned them ripped at the knee.

Average teenage stunts, and about as far away as is possible to be from the size of the decision made by swimming prodigy Achieng Ajulu-Bushell.

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Living in Kenya with her English mother and sisters, surrounded by friends and enjoying a very pleasant lifestyle, she chose to leave all that behind and move thousands of miles to Plymouth, a city where she knew no-one, simply to improve her swimming.

Two years later, another monumental choice. With a berth in the Kenyan team for the Commonwealth Games and Olympics a certainty, Ajulu-Bushell opted to switch her sporting allegiance to Great Britain.

If she were an ordinary swimmer, no-one would probably have noticed. She isn't. At her first British championships earlier this year, she won both the 50m and 100m senior breaststroke titles, and subsequently won selection for the forthcoming European championships in Budapest and Commonwealths in Delhi, putting her firmly in the frame for Team GB at the Olympics in two years' time.

All of which brought accusations firing her way. Was she chasing Lottery money? Did she actually feel British? Had she betrayed Kenya?

Big questions for anyone, let alone someone who has just completed their GCSEs, but Ajulu-Bushell is preternaturally composed.

"I was born in Warrington, and my mum is English," she explains, in an accent that is pure Home Counties, "but we moved to Kenya when I was three. I wanted to continue swimming, and Kenya wouldn't be able to offer me the facilities, the coaching that England and Plymouth College would.

"After that - obviously you can only represent one country, and I had a British passport, I was currently living in England - it all made sense to me. It was sad leaving Kenya, but the decision was a good one. I wouldn't be swimming to the level I am now if I'd still been in Kenya. I've had no regrets."

Ajulu-Bushell's background set her apart from the very start. Her politics professor father Rok Ajulu met her mother Helen when they worked together at Leeds University. Rok had represented South Africa at hockey; Helen, a lecturer in international development, was a decent 400m runner and shot putter.

When the pair split - Ajulu is now married to South Africa's defence minister, Lindiwe Sisulu - Helen found work in Kenya and took her young daughter with her. They would also spend time in Cape Town, but it was east Africa that would become home.

"I started swimming in the Indian Ocean aged six," Achieng remembers. "When I was four I was still scared of the water - I had to go in with my rubber ring and armbands and my mum holding onto me. I started swimming with school, then a club."

Even now, having pledged sporting allegiance to Britain, she is honest enough to admit that Kenya still exerts a powerful draw.

"I've got grandparents, aunties, uncles, all living here in the UK, and I would come back three times a year when I was in Kenya.

"But home for me is where my immediate family is. I know my way round Cape Town, I know my way round Nairobi. And when I go back to Kenya to see my family - my mum, my stepdad and two younger sisters - that feels like home for me."

So if Kenya is home, are her motives for switching to Britain somewhat mercenary? With the London Olympics just two years away, is she exploiting the nation's need for podium placers?

"I think 2012 is such an opportunity for the country, there'll be such pride in the nation, and it'll inspire so many more people to get involved in the sport - but it didn't play that much of a part in my decision-making. Obviously taking part in a home Olympics will be an amazing experience, but it was so far away at the time that it wasn't really an issue.

"I can only have one sporting nationality, and I needed to do what was best for me, and get the support I needed for my swimming. I'll always have my Kenyan heritage - it'll always be a place I know, a place I can go home to - but I consider myself British and Kenyan.

"The switch was really hard and I did feel really guilty for a while, and it was sad having to leave and change, but there wasn't a bad reaction. My close friends and family were very supportive."

achieng595.jpgAchieng Ajulu-Bushell won the 50m and 100m breastroke at the British Championships earlier this year

Beyond the bare issue of national identity, there's the issue of colour. In some media coverage, Ajulu-Bushell has been described as the first black swimmer to represent Great Britain. As with most issues she's had to deal with, it's a little more complicated than that.

"My mum's white and my dad's black. I'm mixed race. I haven't really thought about it, but it does crop up a lot."

For most teenagers, struggling with far simpler questions of identity, the spotlight and self-examination would be too much to deal with. But Ajulu-Bushell is not your ordinary teenager.

"She's very strong-minded," says Jon Rudd, head coach of Plymouth's Leander swimming club. "I first met Achieng and her mother in a cafe and I was grilled by her for 45 minutes. She was 12 at the time.

"She very much had in her mind what she was looking for, although I must admit it's the first time I've been interviewed by a 12-year-old."

How does Achieng deal with being away from her family for so long?

"I cope with it well sometimes, not so well at other times. I do miss my mum a lot; as a teenager we fight all the time but when we're apart I do miss her.

"I'm not one of these people who's very dependent on their family. I'm quite independent, and I do things for myself, and my family don't often come to competitions - but in terms of adjusting to a new lifestyle, being away from home has made me more independent. I think I would be a different person if I was at home.

"Sometimes I do just want to go home, leave it all. My phone bill is always massive. I'm always like, 'Mum, I'll call you for five minutes', and then half an hour later...

"I try to get home every holiday and some half-terms, but when I'm aiming for meets it's just not possible to miss that much training."

Ajulu-Bushell is not the only potential London medallist at Plymouth College. In the same year as her is a certain Tom Daley. If there's one thing that helps deflect media attention, it's having the country's 2012 poster-boy alongside you.

"We're known as 'the swimmers'. I think we're quite threatening, to be honest. No, there's a good understanding between the pupils here, of what we do - it's quite broadcasted by the school what we do. There's a bit of mickey-taking, but it's all fine.

"We're really good friends. We have the same tutor in class, and we're in some of the same classes, but we don't talk about swimming or anything to do with the pool. He'll be at the Europeans, so I've told him he has to look after me."

Britain has a rich Olympic heritage in breaststroke, from David Wilkie's 200m gold in Montreal in 1976 and Duncan Goodhew's 100m four years later to Adrian Moorhouse's 100m gold in Seoul in 1988.

That Ajulu-Bushell knows little about them has less to do with national identity and more to do with age. When you were born in 1994, the deeds of that famous trio might as well be ancient history.

For now, their possible successor is focused on the immediate future. "My preparation for the Europeans has gone well so far. I'll just do my best and see what happens - a medal would be amazing, but the experience is what I'm looking forward to most.

"I think it will feel different. It's a new team for me, a new event, a new experience, and I don't know that many people on the team yet. It'll just be a case of trying to take it all in."


  • Comment number 1.

    This young lady was very impressive at the Nationals and has from what I gathered has been accepted by the other swimmers into what is an extremely competitive environment.

    Being the parent of a young club swimmer the commitment required is tough, the maturity shown by AAB despite a long distance family relationships shows her commitment to the sport and the GB team.

    Good luck to her...

  • Comment number 2.

    "and has from what I gathered has been accepted by the other swimmers into what is an extremely competitive environment."
    Well I'm sure she has been happily accepted by Fran Halsall, Gemma Spofforth and Ellen Gandy who will now be able to think of a medley relay medal in 2012.

  • Comment number 3.

    Kenyans are suddened by Ajulus move,but its her rightful decision.We had hopes of medals from her and the dunfold advice is keep up the good work and not follow others who lost shape few months after changing nationalities eg kipketer 800m record holder,shaheen 3000m

  • Comment number 4.

    silivi, I think if you check again you'll see those athlete didn't lose shape quite as quickly as you seem to imagine. This is a different situation to the athlete nationality switches we usually see anyway. A lot of people don't like the outright mercenarys switching to a country with which they have no connection, and that's understandable, but we can't compare it to someone born a British citizen.

    On the swimming front, she has good chance to medal at Europeans already. In the 50 she'll fancy her chances against anyone except Efimova. The 50 is definitely her better event, which is unfortunate for her with it not being in the Olympics. She's still got a lot to do to be world class in the 100, but as alluded to above, she'll be a big asset to an otherwise very strong medley relay team crying out for a breaststroker. Her continued progress will make Britain serious competition for any team.

  • Comment number 5.

    AAB is indeed very fast at the 50m breast in particular and is a medal possibility for the commies in October. I feel it's a little early to predict her inclusion in the womens 4 x 100m medley relay and a touch disrespectful to Kate Haywood who is still a lot quicker than this girl over 100m. There are also a couple of younger breastrokers starting to make headway who may well be pushing both of these girls come 2012 selection time.
    It will be interesting to see how AAB deals with the pressure now that she has dumped Kenya and how indeed she reacts to racing a fully fit Kate and some youngsters in next years World trials in March. If her antics around the swim down pool that caused the PL husband & wife team to rage at each other are anything to go by then it should be interesting......

  • Comment number 6.

    felixtzu how will kenya develop in sports if our best asserts are poached,ajulu must have bèen sweetalked the notion that there are swimming nations with good prospects than others is a
    minus to the spirit of sportmanship btn powerful nations and upcoming ones.

  • Comment number 7.

    Silivi - Ajulu does get funding from GB but only due to the fact that she has achived the relevant consideration times that release this financial help. Sadlt, we will only ever truly know how committed Ajulu is to GB if indeed she loses form or gets beaten bu fatser swimmers which would then lead to her not getting selected. Would she then jump allegiance again and go back to Kenya or will she be content with the fact that she gave it her best shot with her nation of birth and watch the olympics from the comfort of her front room on the the TV?

  • Comment number 8.

    Tombstone- you've put it really well (ajulu gets funds from the goverment) which most african countries cant afford.i wish Ajulu all the best in the Great Britain team and hope they give her full support.


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