Uganda: Nanziri, the First Ugandan Woman Boxer to the Olympics

Three years ago, Catherine Nanziri was a novice in boxing, but in three months she will be the first Ugandan woman to box at the Olympics, if all goes to plan.

The flyweight boxer from A & B Boxing Club last week received the news that she and middleweight David Ssemuju will join Bombers captain Musa Shadir on the trip to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Welterweight Shadir was the only Ugandan who got the Olympic ticket at the African Qualifiers in Dakar, Senegal, in February 2020. Nanziri was among the 12 who failed the test and she does not hesitate to attribute her eventual breakthrough to God.

"I'm humbled that of all women, I'm the first [to reach the Olympics]... God works in strange ways," Nanziri told SCORE on phone from Kabale.

The struggle

Women boxing in Uganda is a story of two decades with little success. At the inaugural African Women Championship in Cairo in 2001, Irene Ssemakula and Mariam Nalukwago (RIP) won gold. They vanished from the scene.

In 2003, Hawa Daku joined the professional ranks, fought 12 times and vanished from the scene in 2013.

In 2014, Hellen Baleke, Diana Tulyanabo, Moureen Adhiambo and Diana Atwine went to the World Women Boxing Championships in Jeju, Korea.

Then they faded into oblivion, until Baleke returned to win bronze at the 2019 African Games in Rabat, Morocco - the first of a kind.

Baleke missed the Tokyo 2020 trials in Dakar, but five women competed for Uganda. Three lost instantly, two reached the semifinals. And eventually, one - Nanziri - got the ticket to Tokyo, the first Ugandan woman ever to do so.

"I can't believe I'm the one," Nanziri says. "Many doubt me and must be wondering why it's me of all people. God's great."

The journey

Nanziri first tried boxing in 2015 at Aggrey Memorial College in Bunnamwaya, on the outskirts of Kampala, where Zana Boxing Club used to train from. But after O-Level, she quit boxing to pursue vocational studies.

"I focused on jobs for a living," she says.

Three years later, she resumed boxing, won silver at the 2018 National Intermediates under her first coach Muhammad Ssekanjako, who had then switched to A & B club. Then she settled for silver at the 2019 National Open, as University of Pain's Grace Nankinga took gold in the light flyweight Women Youth category.

At the National Olympic Trials in January 2020, Nanziri defeated the highly rated Teddy Nakimuli 3-2 in a thrilling bout to book the flyweight ticket to the African Qualifiers in Dakar.

Obedient, passionate, and confident - is how coach Ssekanjako describes her.

"During that fight I gave her new instructions, and she followed," he says.

Nanziri's biggest challenge is also her inspiration.

"Opponents and fans doubt my abilities," she says. "During road work, strangers provoke me: 'even if I'm dead drunk you can't beat me.' That pushes me to work harder to prove doubters wrong."

She also attributes her progress to her coaches, club manager and training mates like welterweight Stanley Mugerwa.

Dakar rally

The African Qualifiers in Dakar was Nanziri's first international event. And her only victory in Dakar came against Senegal's Khadidja Timera, a home favourite and top contender. Both had not tested action having got byes to the women's flyweight quarterfinals.

You must be exceptional to convince the judges against an opponent on home turf. Nanziri held her own to win a marginal 3-2 decision.

But she failed to replicate that form in the semifinal against Algeria's Roumaysa Boualam which narrowed her path to Tokyo. "She made a mistake of going all out without guarding herself," Ssekanjako explains. "It's a weakness we're trying to fight."

Nanziri got a second chance, but again she lost to Kenya's Christine Ongare, in the only women's third-place box-off.

"I felt really sad and disappointed getting that close and missing the opportunity," she recalls.

God's call

Just when Nanziri and others who failed the Dakar test contemplated the very last qualifying hope, in France, Covid-19 struck. The Olympics and the qualifiers were postponed to 2021.

Then last month, IOC dropped the bombshell - the qualifiers had been cancelled and the 53 slots left was to be allotted according to boxers' continental rankings. Therein came Nanziri's luck.

And on March 19, the Uganda Olympic Committee announced that Nanziri and Ssemuju had qualified for the Tokyo Games based on their rankings.

With 200 points, Nanziri ranks 12th in the world women's flyweight and fourth on the continent. But she qualified because all the top three in Africa had already qualified.

Featherweight Isaac Masembe and women's captain Emily Nakalema were close but missed.

Had Nanziri given up on the Olympics dream? "Not really. We waited for the last chance in France, though it wasn't clear... but qualifying without fighting again is even more consoling."

Would she keep dreaming if she missed out? "Yes, I'm still in this sport for quite long. I have many aspirations in boxing. I see it as business, I also want to be a world champion," said the boxer, who is also a private fitness trainer.

After training in Kabale, Nanziri will return to train with her club for a month before joining the national camp in May.

London 2012 was the first Olympic with women boxing. At Rio 2016 Uganda took only two men. At Tokyo, 2020, Nanziri will be alongside two men. History.

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