January 27, 2022
Siphiwe Baleka might be undertaking the biggest challenge of his life.
He’s working to increase swimming’s popularity in his ancestral homeland of Guinea Bissau, an African country of about 2 million people. Among his obstacles: the country being among the poorest in the world, a swimming federation that only restarted this year after not being active for 15, no youth swimming programs, and only having two pools he describes as practical for competitive swimmers in the capital, Bissau, which is home to nearly 500,000 people.
Baleka left behind his home, wife, friends, and family, as well as the comforts of the U.S., to pursue this seemingly impossible task that could take years to accomplish.
“I sacrificed everything for what I believed was a glorious destiny, something that was bigger than just me,” he says. “Imagine you have the chance to impact an entire country.”
Baleka hoped to raise the sport’s profile in Guinea Bissau by representing the country at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in the 50 freestyle through what’s called universality places, which allows countries with under-resourced swimming programs to build the sport through Olympic representation.
But FINA rejected his application based on differing interpretations of application deadlines, a decision the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld following the appeal of Baleka, 50, who would’ve been Guinea Bissau’s first Olympic swimmer and the oldest Olympic swimmer ever.
“To be quite honest, I felt betrayed by my sport and by FINA,” says Baleka, a member of MOVY Masters. “There was what I call the athletic disappointment. As a swimmer, to compete in the Olympics is the ultimate goal. Of course, I wasn’t expecting to win any medals or anything like that, but I did want to go and swim my best. I was planning to swim fast.
“I felt very bitter that FINA would be so short-sighted. If FINA wanted to promote the Olympic spirit and developing swimming around the world, this was their opportunity to show their goodwill and good faith. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Baleka, of course, is no stranger to challenges. He holds two U.S. Masters Swimming records, created a workout program for fellow long-haul truckers, and co-wrote a book titled “4 Minute Fit.”
He took on his latest challenge after learning through a DNA test that he descended from the Balanta tribe from West Africa on his father’s side. The Balanta live in several countries, though they represent the largest ethnic group in Guinea Bissau.
As he continues building the sport of swimming in the country, Baleka plans to keep training. He sees on a regular basis how much work he has to do. He swims in a short course meters pool—there are no long course pools in the country—with no lane markings on the bottom or lane lines. Sometimes the water will be green or brown and unswimmable.
Baleka wants to win a gold medal at this year’s FINA World Masters Championships after finishing second four times at the meet in 2017.
After that, who knows? His lifelong goal has been to become an Olympian, but the 2024 Paris Olympics don’t hold any special place for him.
Daniel Paulling is the editor-in-chief of SWIMMER magazine and manages content development and production for the STREAMLINES newsletters and articles published on usms.org. He swam for four years at Rollins College and covered Southeastern Conference athletics, Major League Baseball, and the NFL for a number of newspapers and websites across the country, including the Kansas City Star, MLB.com, and USA Today, before joining USMS in March 2017.
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Elaine K. Howley
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