An East Dulwich man has been chosen to compete at the Paralympics in Tokyo next month.
Columba Blango Jr., who grew up in the area, is going to run in the 400 metres in the T20 category, for people with intellectual disabilities.
Columba Jr. said he was excited but not nervous about taking part in his first Paralympics.
“My passion helps me see track and field as fun,” he told the News. “I’m simply enjoying the moment, and looking to do the best I can. That helps me stay grounded and be calm.”
Columba Jr. qualifies for the Paralympics because of some cognitive issues resulting from a difficult birth. He was in intensive care for about four weeks after being born, after suffering blood clots on his brain.
He was unable to speak until the age of six, but therapy and help from staff at St John’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Rotherhithe meant he was largely able to overcome his problems later on, although some issues remain, according to his father Columba Sr, a former Olympic athlete, Liberal Democrat councillor and mayor of Southwark.
Columba Jr, 29, is at the older end of the peak age range for sprinters. Daniel Martins, the Brazilian athlete who won the T20 400 metres gold medal in 2016, was just 20 at the time.
Wayde van Niekerk and Kirani James, the last two winners of the 400 metres at the Olympics, were 24 and 19 respectively at the time of their victories.
Nevertheless, Columba Jr. is convinced that his age is not a barrier to success.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of age, it’s just about the level of sport you’re at, really. I’ve been working at this for so long and it was the passion that took me through. I enjoy what I do, it’s something that I love to do.”
Nor did he ever think that his developmental issues should be considered an insurmountable problem.
“I wouldn’t call it a struggle,” he said. “It’s more like an obstacle, just like every other obstacle that everyone has in life.
“I work on each and every barrier that I come across. I wouldn’t say that [the cognitive problems] are difficult.
“As long as I work hard every day, tomorrow success will be easy to come by”.
Columba Jr is coming into the Paralympics in top form. He won gold and broke the European record for T20 400 metres in June at the European Para Athletics Championships, with a time of 47.9 seconds.
At the last Paralympics that time would have seen him collect a bronze medal and finish just 0.7 seconds off a gold.
But he says he is not thinking too much about more medals just yet.
“First and foremost, participation in the Games is the number one. Taking part against other top competitors is also a big thing for me.
“The competition itself gets me going. I don’t think about the actual award I till I get there.
“I just take all the right steps to get ready and take things one day at a time”.
Columba Jr said he has fond memories of his childhood in East Dulwich, running around and playing outside, before becoming an athlete was something he even thought about.
Coming from a Sierra Leonean family, he said it was eye-opening to go to school in Rotherhithe, where many children came from different backgrounds to his own.
“It wasn’t such a mix at the time, it was a minority of black people in a dominant white area.
“I’ve seen both sides of where I am, I’ve got to know people from different backgrounds and that means I can understand different perspectives on life. I believe that’s important.”
When he’s not competing in races around the world, Columba Jr still lives with his family in East Dulwich and works part-time at Primark in Peckham.
Asked whether the people he works with are proud of his feats, he said: “My colleagues didn’t know about my achievements until recently! They didn’t know how far I had gone.”
Columba Jr’s first race will be the 400 metre heats on August 30. If he gets through, the final is the following evening. The Paralympics will be shown on Channel 4.