How Niringiyimana became Rwanda’s top Para Taekwondo athlete

n 2005, the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) formed the Para-Taekwondo Committee in an effort to develop and promote taekwondo among athletes with physical disabilities.

Initially, Para-Taekwondo focused on developing ‘kyorugi’ (sparring) for limb deficiency and arm amputee athletes and the first WTF World Para-Taekwondo Championships was held in 2009 in Baku, Azerbaijan during the World Taekwondo Team Championships.

On January 31, 2015, the WTF received the historic news that the IPC Governing Board had decided that taekwondo should be included on the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games programme.

Later in November 2016, Rwanda was given the rights to host the second edition of African Para-Taekwondo Open during the WTF General Assembly in Canada and this was the first time that the national team was formed and competed in a Para-Taekwondo competition.

Nonetheless, despite the annual event attracting world giants like Spain, USA and Uzbekistan, hosts Rwanda dominated the three-day event that took place between March 31 to April 2. Rwanda scooped a total of six medals to finish as the overall best team.

On top of that, this week, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) announced Rwanda’s Jean Claude Niringiyimana as the Allianz Athlete for the Month of April.

It is the first time for a Rwandan athlete to reach that level in Para-Taekwondo. The accolade was a result of the 24-year-old’s stunning performance at Africa-Para Taekwondo Open.

Saturday Sport’s Geoffrey Asiimwe caught up with Niringiyimana and he narrated his rise to become Rwanda’s top Para-Taekwondo player and his take on his recent historic achievement.

Profile

Born on January 1, 1993 in Nyamata sector, Bugesera District, to Felicien Turikunkiko and Madalina Nyanzira, Niringiyimana is the sixth born in the family of seven including five girls and two boys.

He attended Groupe Scholaire Maranyundo in Nyamata where he completed his primary education and later joined Groupe Scholaire Nyamata Catholic where he studied up to senior four in 2010 when he decided to join the army, which he says, was his childhood “dream profession.”

Early days

Niringiyimana’s story is a breathtaking one, the soft-spoken martial artist, classified in the under 61kg K44 category, is a former Rwanda Defence Forces soldier, who had his left arm amputated.

He was born a very normal child and his dream as a child was to serve the country in the military and he looked destined to achieve his dream when he joined the army in 2011 at the age of 18.

“Throughout my childhood and during my time in school, I grew up with the obsession to serve in the army and with that in mind, I didn’t give much attention to school because I knew that at one time that chance would come,” he recounts.

In January, 2015, Niringiyimana, who had served in military for three years at Nasho Military Academy, was involved in a deadly incident that left him amputated and ended his dream career.

He revealed that, “That day, we were in practical training and I, with four other colleagues were in a shooting practice using heavy guns, unfortunately during the exercise, the gun exploded and killed my colleagues instantly and I was very lucky to survive.”

“I was horribly injured and at first, they thought I was also dead, but on reaching Kanombe military hospital, doctors discovered that I was still alive. I was taken into an intensive care and remained unconscious for a month,” he recalls.

When he regained his conscious after a month, Niringiyimana found himself amputated and after gaining full recovery, five months later, he was demobilized and returned to civilian life.

He admitted that, “It was a very tragic end, that accident struck at the time when I was beginning to enjoy my career and I have to tell you this, when I was younger, I always asked myself why Rwanda experienced the Genocide, it was something that used to give me nightmares and it inspired me to join the army to be among that generation that would make sure it never happens again.”

Joining Para-Taekwondo

Niringiyimana joined Para-Taekwondo last year, but before that, he had never played Taekwondo.

However, while in secondary, he played Karate in which he holds a blue belt.

In late 2016, after full recovery, he decided to start individual simple training in Karate and in March of 2017, he received a call from Allan Irene Bagire (the national Taekwondo and Para-Taekwondo team head coach) inviting him to Kigali.

Bagire knew Niringiyimana’s name and contact through a third party with whom they were discussing how and where to scout players to join the national Para-Taekwondo team, which had just been formed for the first time.

He says, “When he called, he introduced himself as someone from the taekwondo federation and he asked if we could meet in Kigali and talk and when we met he asked me if I may be interested in joining the national team that is preparing for the African Open.”

“Since I came in late, I had to work extra hard and I believe winning a silver medal was a result of my hard work.”

Despite being debutants in an international competition, Rwanda put on a good show claiming a total of six medals in different categories, hence finishing as the best team overall in15 countries that participated.

The six medals that Rwanda won included; 2 gold medals through Jean de la Croix Nikwigize in the K41 Male under-61kg category and Consolee Rukundo in the K42 Female under-58kg category. She was the only female on the 15-player team.

Rukundo also won a silver medal in the K44 Female under-58kg category before Niringiyimana scooped silver in the K44 Male under-61kg. Team captain Jean Marie Vianney Bizumuremyi got Rwanda a third silver K42 in Male under-61 kg category.

Jean Pierre Manirakiza won a bronze in the K42 Male under-61kg to bring Rwanda’s medal tally to six ahead of Spain, who finished with three medals (2 gold and 1 silver) and Uzbekistan (2 gold and 2 bronze).

On Tuesday, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) named Niringiyimana as the Allianz Athlete for the Month of April.

Niringiyimana overcame Lesotho’s Phoofolo Mokhethi in a tight 7-6 duel on his way to the final, only falling to Spain’s No. 3 ranked Aythami Santana, who received 76 per cent of the public votes while Canadian Para Ice Hockey player Adam Dixon was second with 17 per cent.

On top of this award, Niringiyimana has been given a wildcard by World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) to compete at this year’s third edition of the Asian Para Taekwondo Open slated for July 1 in Chuncheon, South Korea.

Best and worst moments

“My best moment so far is when I was enrolled in the army to serve my country. I will always be very proud of it no matter what happened to me, and another good moment was being voted as the best Athlete for April by the IPC, while my worst is the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi.”

Future plans and ambitions

He says he has started a new career in the best way possible, “but it’s just the beginning, I want to reach as far as possible and raise my country’s flag on the biggest stage.”

Appreciation

“I really thank the doctors at Kanombe military hospital, who saved my life, secondly, my parents, for being with me throughout the most difficult time and lastly, my coaches (Bagire) for helping me find a new career.”

How others describe him

His coach says although he is a new player in taekwondo, he has huge commitment to learn.

“He trained for just three weeks and won a silver medal, which tells you the kind of athlete he is; I believe he will achieve more in near future.”

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