The Jason Dunford Story; the first Kenyan swimmer to qualify for the Olympics

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Tell us a little bit about the background of Jason, your childhood, how did you get into swimming?

I was born in Nairobi to Martin and Geraldine Dunford, founders of Carnivore and inventors of the Dawa cocktail. My father Martin, was also one of Kenya’s first surfers, discovering many of the rideable waves along the Kenya coast like Lighthouse, Far Break, State House, Shelly Corner and Gunboats. His passion for surfing meant his three sons, Robert, Jason and David were introduced to the water before we could even walk. He would take us out on the front of his 7’2” Al Merrick surfboard and push us into waves. If we fell off the board, it was literally a case of sink or swim.
From such experiences, my comfort in the water grew and as I grew up I started entering and dominating local swim meets in Nairobi and Mombasa. Shipped off to boarding school at age 13, I was discovered by a former international swimmer for Great Britain who was also a teacher at the school. He inspired me to start training twice a day and motivated me to make my dream of becoming the first Kenyan swimmer to qualify for the Olympics, a reality. I would wake up at 5:30 am and training for 2 hours before school with just my younger brother David and our coaches Pete and Chris, and then return to the pool again in the afternoon to put in another 2 hours.

However, I was also determined not to let my grades slip and consequently would work hard on my studies as well. Uchovu ulikuwa mwingi lakini nilikuwa na ndoto kubwa kwa hivyo niliendelea kujisukuma na kufanya bidii. The result was gaining a place to go and attend Stanford University, the most prestigious university in the world and the coaches allowed me to walk-on to the swim team. At Stanford I had the chance to train with some of the greatest swimmers of all time and under arguably the greatest coach of his era, Skip Kenney. Every day, training was hard as nails apart from Wednesday afternoons (Wednesday “Fun Day”) when we would watch video of our technique and perform drills to focus our minds on improving each miniscule aspect of our movement.
Stanford provided the extra impetus that allowed me to reach the next level of performance, and in 2007 became the first ever Kenyan to qualify for the Olympics at swimming. My brother, David would follow suit a year later and still today we remain the only Kenyans in history to have qualified to swim at the Olympics – others have been able to swim by virtue of wildcards. I remember feeling prouder when David qualified than when I did, thinking back to all those hours we’d spent training together just the two of us. All that work had paid off and we really were getting to live out our dream!

In Beijing David and I were so excited by everything. We roamed the village taking photos, posing in every random corner. We were thrilled to see the friends we had made from swimming all over the world, all in one place.

Along with that excitement, I felt an even bigger sense of duty. If you remember, Kenya was still recovering from the post-election violence and as an Olympic team, we talked a lot about how our conduct could play a part in healing the nation, and I felt a strong responsibility to represent Kenya as best I could. I was so moved to hear from wananchi back home that seeing me as a white Kenyan athlete on TV, speaking Swahili and being so proudly Kenyan, was a symbol that being Kenyan meant something more than just a bunch of different ethnicities – there is a national identity that someone who’s so non-obvious can be proud of.  This reaction was humbling, and when I got fifth it intensified my drive to dedicate four more years to see if I could win a medal next time.

Unfortunately, things did not quite pan out that way in London 2012 and despite being in the best shape of my life, I put too much pressure on myself, my mind went to the dogs and I ended finishing 12th. Leading in to the competition I had won the Paris Open, the Bartislava Open and the Amsterdam Open so I was looking very good. On the day, however things did not pan out as I had hoped. That is sport though and nevertheless I am quite satisfied with what I achieved and hope that I did at least a little to promote Kenya to the world and bring joy and pride to Kenyans everywhere. I strive to continue to do that through my media endeavors and by building a business with my wife.

How many awards have you won since you started swimming?

I’ve won several throughout my career though those that are most cherished in no particular order are

Commonwealth gold medal, 50 Butterfly, Delhi 2010

Order of the Grand Warrior, awarded by President Mwai Kibaki for services to the nation.

My first All-Africa Games gold medal, 100 Butterfly, Algiers 2007

World University Games gold medal, 100 Butterfly, Belgrade 2009

Olympics 5th place certificate, 100 Butterfly, Beijing 2008

Do you have a specific swimming technique that made you into a champion?

Throughout my career I was always on the smaller side for a professional swimmer, being only 6’0 and 75 kg. Thus, without the natural power of some of the other swimmers, perfect technique was even more important for me to be able to compete at the highest level.

What was your lowest moment as a professional swimmer and how did you cope with it?

The disappointment after the London Olympics was definitely my lowest moment. Going into the competition ranked 4th in the World, I felt it was my moment to win that elusive medal. I was devastated after not even making the final and it took me over a year to really recover. I entered a sort of depression and I am just lucky to have an incredibly supportive wife, family and close group of friends that pulled me out of it.

What challenges have you endured during your journey?

Injury – I was plagued by back and shoulder injuries especially towards the end of my career. Pain was constant but so was my desire to overcome. I learned about the power of the mind to push on and defeat physical pain.

Lack of support and mismanagement of sport in Kenya – Imagine going to the Olympics and the kit is stolen. Or showing up to the World Championships without your coach and having to time your brother on pool deck. These were just some of the things we dealt that our competitors from other countries didn’t have to confront. Nevertheless, I did my level best to take in my stride and just overcome.

Training overseas – In an ideal world I would have loved to been able to use Kenya as my training base, but the relative dearth of facilities and access to quality coaching and support made it impossible to compete at the highest level. Therefore, I had to base myself outside but now I am back and feel great to be back in the motherland where I feel most in touch with my people.

Do you think there is a future in the Kenyan swimming and do you think there are Kenyan swimmers who will replicate your success?

In Kenya we certainly have the talent for someone to one day replicate my success. However, until the useless, corrupt administrators are replaced, we will always be up against it. It was quite dismal to see Ben Ekumbo, the former head of KSF arrested last year for stealing kit. To be fair he has stolen much more than that and has never allowed proper auditing of the KSF books. With honesty, integrity and commitment from administrators the sky would be the limit for Kenya swimming. Reform is coming and when it does you are going to see an outstanding future.

If you had to change one thing in the sport industry what would that be?

Root out corruption and the useless hangers-on who are in sport just to try to make a quick buck for themselves. They have no interest in working for the athletes and helping them succeed. Consequently, we lose talent like Chris Froome, who decides to choose a different nationality because it is not viable for him to compete for Kenya because of the way Kenya cycling treated him. Or some of our best runners who choose Qatar or even the state of our cricket team today. We were on the path to Test status back in 2003 but now look where we are…The common thread is the poor leadership in the administration of our sport. Corruption is rife and not until we have people who enter public service as actual servants of the public we will not see any real change.

If you had a chance for an international work collaboration, who would it be and why?

I would love to source a media collaboration with someone who believes in what I am trying to do with my talk show so we can take it to the next level.

What kind of music do you listen to and do you have a favorite artist?

Reggae, classic rock, African, Latin: Anything Marley, Rebelution, the Black Seeds, the Roots, Pink Floyd, the Dead, Aerosmith, Sauti So, Eric Wainaina, Ismael Lo, Daddy Yankee, Enrique Igelsias, Akon.

If you were not into swimming, what you would be doing? (Here you explain your other passions – what do you do apart from swimming)

I surf, I read, I write, I run, I meditate, I speak about issues, I do my best to motivate and inspire, I refine my Swahili, I study methali, I connect, I dedicate time to family and friends.

Where do you see Jason in the next 10 years?

I aspire to be an inspirational leader and role model to people everywhere. I want to bring people together to fight injustice and make a better world. I wish to build a business that changes lives and leaves a legacy that in some small way touches people and changes the world.

Word of advice to aspiring athletes and entrepreneurs

Stay focused and block out the naysayers. They’ll always be people who doubt you and tell you it isn’t possible. Don’t listen to them. Develop a growth mindset and strive to get better each and every day. Work hard, relish abundance, connect with people and you’ll be surprised and the great things that will come your way.

Do you have anything to say to young Kenyans who have lost hope in life? Is there a formula for success?

To those young Kenyans who have lost hope I say just keep on going. There is always tomorrow and a chance to improve your lot in life. I understand that I’ve been lucky to have grown up in relative privilege and I try to show my appreciation daily. There is no formula for success, but to those who work hard and strive for something bigger than themselves, much will be given.

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