By now Achieng Ajulu-Bushell has got used to the questions. Since April she has had to. That was the month when it all kicked off. At Ponds Forge in Sheffield she won both the 50 metres and the 100m breaststroke titles at the British championships. Some feat for a 16-year-old. But the press did not want to talk only about her age or her talent, it is the colour of her skin that has been attracting all the attention. Ajulu-Bushell is of mixed race, the daughter of an English mother and a Kenyan father. When she competed at the European championships in Budapest last August, she became the first black woman ever to swim for Britain. The year before she had been representing Kenya at the world championships, but she decided to switch nationalities at the start of 2010.
Some have been predictably quick to claim that Ajulu-Bushell is living refutation of the ugly old assertion that black Africans cannot swim at the top level. “It’s pretty crazy,” she says of all the coverage she has received. “I still don’t really understand it. It is an honour, the whole history of it, but it doesn’t really feel any different.” Before the championships in Budapest it was pointed out to her again and again that no black African had ever won an international title. After Budapest that was still true – she had a terrible competition, knocked out in the heats of the 50m and failing to make the final of the 100m. The pressure got to her and understandably so – it was only a month before that she was finishing her GCSEs. The Commonwealth Games will be her first major meet since, and her first chance to make amends.
Those who fixate on Ajulu-Bushell’s colour miss the point. Her story is so much more than skin deep. Her father is Rok Ajulu, a prominent politics professor who now lives in South Africa. Ajulu was expelled from Kenya in the 1990s because of his active opposition to the repressive regime of the then president, Daniel arap Moi. Living in exile in England Ajulu met Helen Bushell. Their relationship did not last long, but Achieng was born in Warrington early in 1994. The next year the mother and daughter moved to Africa so Helen could pursue her aid work. Achieng’s first birthday was in Britain, her second in Malawi, her third in Uganda and her fourth in Kenya.
“I learned to swim when I was four years old,” Ajulu-Bushell remembers. “I went in with a dinghy, a rubber ring, armbands and I wouldn’t let my mum let go of me. I don’t really know how it started. I did my first competition at school when I was about six years old, a 25-metre freestyle.” At that age her school teacher, who had swum for South Africa herself, was already predicting that Ajulu-Bushell would be a star swimmer. As was the girl herself. Helen Bushell remembers the six-year-old Achieng drawing crayon pictures of herself winning her first Olympic medals. “I got into it seriously when we moved to South Africa,” Achieng says. “Then when we settled in Kenya it was like ‘Well, I’m either going to carry on swimming or give it up, because obviously there aren’t the facilities to do it.'” She wanted to continue, and so moved back here to take up a place at Plymouth college, where she was in the same class as Tom Daley.
Eventually she switched nationalities, too. The Kenyan federation understood her move, and gave permission for her qualification to be fast-tracked. “That was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do,” she says. “It wasn’t a decision I really wanted to make. It was a lot of stress and pressure which I didn’t really want. But you can only have one sporting nationality. I was born in England, my mum lived in England and the support British swimming gives me is amazing.” These days her ambitions stretch a long way beyond the swimming pool. She is applying to study politics, philosophy and economics at university. During the pre-Games camp in Qatar she was taking time out from training to write an A-level essay on the merits of constitutional versus unwritten law. The girl, you would guess, is going places. And not just in the pool.