HUNGRY FOR SUCCESS: Ivan Byekwaso is the current Mr Natural Universe. He bagged gold at a competition held in Texas, US two weeks ago, beating hundreds of contenders from well-financed academies. He shares his story and long strides from grass to stardom with EDGAR R. BATTE
How do you feel having won the title of Mr Universe?
My dream has always been to contest in international competitions, which I have always tried to attend but failed because of financial constraints. I am glad that I have achieved that and I still yearn for more. My dream has always been to market Uganda on the international arena, which I am doing now. I expect to win more just like star athletes have done.
What has been your experience at the international arena?
The poses are different and then you have to be confident. It was hard to be confident because Australia had 100 competitors, USA had nearly 200 competitors, England had about 20 and there I was, alone with my manager Jack Pemba.
What kept you strong?
I had won bronze and silver medals before, so it was not a new turf. I awaited to challenge all of them.
How did you feel when you were announced as a winner?
The first thing that came to my mind were the different struggles that I have gone through to get to that point. There are days I would go without food, no fuel in the car to enable me drive to the gym or having to worry when my children had been sent away from school for non-payment of school fees. That is what caused the tears from my eyes as the Uganda National Anthem was played and the Uganda flag was displayed on the screens.
You struggled to make it to such international fetes. What observations do you make at such events?
Everyone goes through challenges but when I go to some of these competitions, I cannot help but envy some of my competitors who have sponsors right from the shoes, all the way to their head gear. International sportsmen have the luxury of preparing for such events seven months to the competitions.
At home, I am toiling and that is why I am thankful to Jackson Pemba for his kindness. Many people are mean and self-centred. I call upon Ugandans to be patriotic. Let them support me. If I win the next two competitions, we will have a chance to host the championships which will have a spill-over effect to benefit the country at large.
What challenges have you faced as a sportsman?
Many people have used me for their own benefit. I am thankful that I am God-fearing and I maintain my composure. That is why I have not been involved in fights. I have chosen to be patient, hoping for better days.
At what point did you join sports?
I started sports in 2001 as a footballer with Kakira Football Club under coach Timothy Ayeko and Fred Lumu. Those two gentlemen instilled courage in me. I then played with Iganga FC. My father was Idi Amin’s driver, so he did not have money to support me in school after the regime had fallen. Football earned me a place in school, on scholarships. I needed pocket money so I would moonlight as a builder at construction sites. In 2005, I decided to quit football. At the time I was playing with Kabalagala Rangers. It was not paying well. I would be paid Shs3,000 for big games. I wanted to be licensed under Super Division but the players were always complaining of poor pay. Most of the time, we would play without pay.
When you quit football, what followed?
I started working at Indian Summer Restaurant in Muyenga. I was working in the kitchen. The proprietor of the restaurant saw the zeal I had for work, so he sponsored me to enrol for a course at Sekasi Catering Institute. I got a job at a restaurant at Amber House. I was paid Shs100,000 a month. I was staying at Namuwongo then and I could hardly make ends meet yet I had to be at work at 5am.
My former employer recommended me for a job at Al’s Bar. I was given a job as a bouncer. One day a friend, Martin Mugisha; now working at Ange Noir, invited me to work out with him at the gym. I obliged. After a while, we relocated to a gym in Nakivubo. When I went there for the first time, the trainer told me I had strong legs and if I worked on my upper body, I would become Mr Kampala.
Did you take him for his word?
No. In fact I laughed at him but when I returned to work at Al’s Bar, one reveller wondered if I was really a bouncer. When I answered in the affirmative, he went to his hotel and returned with some food supplements. My body started forming. Another white friend brought me more food supplements. In 2006, I won the junior Mr Kampala competitions. In 2007, I competed in the senior’s category and I came third. My white friend comforted me that I did not win because I was not known. The following year I won Mr Kampala and five other times consecutively. I then won regional competitions in Kericho, Kenya. I also won the 2013 Muscle Mania Africa Championship. My future became brighter. Then I met another white guy, a reveller at Al’s Bar, who gave me a secret behind bodybuilding.
What secret did he give you?
He told me not to tell it to anyone unless I am retiring. I have tried to take part in so many competitions, but because of limitations, I have failed. I am grateful to Jack Pemba for supporting me. I need support. I eat seven times a day.
What is it you eat?
I eat almost everything during the off season. I choose not to compete in certain years. When I have to compete, I go into camp for seclusion and I keep away from things like salt and sugar.
Are you a family man?
I am but I don’t have a woman in my life.
She left when I did not have money but I live with my children.
What is single parenting like?
It is not that hard and I would not advise any sportsman to marry. It is hard to find a woman who can understand you. I need to concentrate on my training. Now, I can achieve my dreams without interruption.
How true is the notion that women make sportsmen lose form?
We lose the fitness and stamina. That is why in the western world, sportsmen are put in camps away from the ladies.
But don’t you have girls chasing you?
We all have ‘take-aways’ but it is not something I put my mind on. I am now born-again and the Bible says the devil is found in women.
What is your favourite Bible verse?
I don’t know it exactly but it says that the Lord can look over birds, grass but he can do more for you who he created in his image. As youth we always want to achieve success very fast and we can also go to witchdoctors. I have done it all but it is all for nothing. It is only God that knows you and will look over and after you.
What would you say you have achieved out of sports?
I have not made any money but my efforts have earned me fame. I was a nobody but I am now somebody.
You have faced a share of challenges, what keeps you going?
Did you win any money at the Mr Universe competition?
I won nothing really, apart from the medals and bragging rights.