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Kenya's swimming champion

By | Published Wed, February 9th 2011 at 00:00, Updated Wed, February 9th 2011 at 00:00 GMT +3

At just 16, Sylvia Tanya Atieno Brunlehner is Kenya's fastest female swimmer. She talks to Shirley Genga about her achievements and her dream to compete in the 2016 Olympics

When did you begin swimming?

When I was nine. Swimming was part of the extra curriculum activities at Mombasa Academy where I schooled. I didn’t like it much then, but my swimming teacher, Fakhry Mansoor, must have seen something in me because he really pushed me to take it seriously.

When did you realise you had talent?

It happened in 2005 when I was eleven. I participated in my first triathlon in Mauritius and managed to get a silver medal. Soon after, I started winning races in school and that was when I realised I was a good swimmer.

What is your favourite swimming stroke?

I compete in freestyle and backstroke because of my body type. Small-bodied people are better at breaststroke. Although I love butterfly, I did not get time to focus on it especially after I realised I was faster in freestyle and backstroke, but I am now training in it.

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Sylvia has won countless trophies and medals. Photos: Pius Cheruiyot/Courtesy

What was your first international swimming competition?

I represented Kenya at a triathlon in Mauritius in 2005 and in 2006 for the Level Two Swimming Championships in South Africa. Although I had been winning all my races at home, I did not get any medal in South Africa and it was very depressing. It made me work really hard and the next year, I won eight medals at the Zambian Invitational Swimming Championship where I represented Kenya.

Tell us something about your training.

When I have training in the morning, I get to school by 6am and I train for one and a half hours. I then go to class from 8am to 3:40pm then I take a break to 5pm. I then resume training until 7pm. In the evening session, I do land training and swimming. Land training involves running, skipping and sit-ups for about an hour before we proceed to the pool to do laps. We usually reduce the intensity of training when competitions are near.

How do you balance your books and swimming?

I find it easy because I love swimming and reading plus my mum keeps a check on me. I’m also spiritual and have a strong faith in God, which guides and helps me balance.

What do you like about swimming?

I love to train and push myself. The adrenaline rush that comes with competing is also exhilarating. I also love the fact that I get to travel all over the world. Because of swimming I have been to Dubai, Morocco, Algeria, South Africa, Singapore, India, Malawi and Zimbabwe. I have also met great swimmers like Leisel Jones (Australia), Geoffry Huegil (Australia), Ryan Lochte (USA), Micheal Phelps (USA) and Cesar Cirlo Filho (Brazil).

What are the challenges of swimming?

I am the only senior girl swimmer in Mombasa so I do not have girls in my age group to train with. Boys are naturally faster but it is hard to gauge my speed when training with them. Also, most parents do not encourage their children to do sports especially when they get older, so I do not get sufficient competition.

Who is your favourite swimmer?

Annamary Pierse, the fastest breaststroke swimmer in the world. She is just so good. Chad Gut Bertrand Le Clos of South Africa also inspires me. I met him when I began competing in international swimming and it is encouraging to see the star he has become. I always meet and chat with him during international competitions and I cannot help but marvel at how fast he has risen. He won gold and silver medals at the Youth Olympic Games, Common Wealth Youth Games and World Championships in Dubai.

Tell us about your trip to Australia last year.

I had reached a stage I needed to improve, but could not find an avenue. My growth was stunted, as there was no competition. So my mum organised for me to visit her brother who lives in Australia and I got to train at Nunawading Swimming Club in Melbourne. I learnt many techniques on how to improve my stroke. The training there is a little different from what we have here. It is more about sprinting unlike here where we learn more endurance. It was, therefore, a nice experience to do something new and I now have the benefit of two types of trainings. I also got to train with young girls of my age who were much faster than me. This offered a good competition and in the process I improved my stroke.

You finished your O-levels in Mombasa Academy last year, what next?

I got a scholarship to study at Yarra Valley Grammar in Melbourne, Australia. This will not only give me an opportunity to pursue my studies, but also to improve my swimming skills. I’m particularly excited because I will get to train with girls my age. I will be leaving for Australia later this month.

What is your favourite subject in school?

Maths and biology. I like solving puzzles and biology is interesting because I get to learn about the human body. I want to study psychology at the university because it has a little biology.

What would you advise an aspiring swimmer?

Work very hard and adopt a consistent training ethic. When you train inconsistently, you become lazy and it is harder to whip your body into shape when competitions are close.

What have you planned for 2011?

I’m looking forward to representing Kenya in the African Games and Shanghai Championships both in July this year. I also hope to represent Kenya in the Isle of Man, Britain, in September and to also take part in other big competitions in Australia. My biggest dream though is to not only represent Kenya in the 2016 Olympics, but to make it to the finals and win a medal.

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