Profiles

I’ll rebuild my swim empire stroke by stroke

james

James founded Swim Africa Limited (SAL) in 2001 to promote swimming as a healthy lifestyle in addition to recreation and to build a career in sports. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Summary

  • James founded Swim Africa Limited (SAL) in 2001 to promote swimming as a healthy lifestyle in addition to recreation and to build a career in sports.
  • It was a precarious investment at a time when only professional and active athletes made a living out of sports in Kenya.

James Muiruri is to the swimming profession what Kipchoge Keino is to athletics in Kenya. The founder of Swim Africa has dedicated his life to the development of the sport locally, witnessing its growth through the decades.

When I walk into his office at Montessori Learning Centre in Nairobi, he is almost static behind his desk, his eyes fastened on his laptop. At first, it is hard to place his precise persona, whether genial or steely and practical, a visage he assumes almost too deliberately, only given away by his sporadic easy laugh.

When he starts talking, his intensity of manner springs to life. James is freely chatty, only fierce and relentless in his resolve. It helps that I start by asking him to describe his state of emotion during this bizarre time.

Turbulent, he tells me, adding quickly that he is firmly on a recovery course.

“I released more than 40 employees because of Covid-19. This was a big blow because it took longer to build a strong team. Some of the members had been with us for more than 10 years,’’ he says.

Swim Africa’s business model was pegged on numbers and was facility-based. When Covid-19 hit and schools closed down, his fortunes went on a free fall. James now stares down the barrel of a daunting rebuild process.

We are now perched on a high bench near the pool, where various instructors are taking children through afternoon swimming lessons.

“Rebuilding the business means reassembling and retraining the team,” he says about the instructors. But foremost, he must recover lost business and restore livelihoods.

For the first time in his adult life, James was without an income for two months between April and May. But how different would it have affected him had he been a recipient of a sack letter rather than the person issuing it?

Behind his spectacles, his brow arches. He says reflectively: “One of the consoling factors would have been the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to grow within the organisation and to acquire the right tools of the trade. This would allow me to start making moves in a small way.” He hesitates briefly, and adds, “I wouldn’t sit with my skills.”

He tells me these tools of the trade are “the strong culture that we’ve built” and the accompanying recognition in the market. Secondly, it’s the fearlessness to start a business, and the desire to push for customers’ satisfaction.

James founded Swim Africa Limited (SAL) in 2001 to promote swimming as a healthy lifestyle in addition to recreation and to build a career in sports. It was a precarious investment at a time when only professional and active athletes made a living out of sports in Kenya.

“My approach was to swim for life (health) first then for fun. Swimming is the only sport that balances the right and left frontal lobe. When you kick with the right hand and leg, you must also kick with the left limbs.”

Schools jumped at his concept for their learners’ wholesome development. Today, the company offers swimming coaching to more than 30 schools in populous neighbourhoods in Kenya and aqua aerobics for corporates.

“My desire has always been to have 1,000 children in the pool every day. Before Covid-19, we had 700 children every day in different schools in our programme,” he says.

On the shifting mindset among Kenyans, James notes that swimming has come a long way. “I was considered a subordinate staff when I started coaching. I was later employed as a coach in charge of a school’s swimming department.”

So far, the biggest drawback has been “the sluggish growth of the competition side of swimming”.

If he could, he would change Kenyans’ attitude towards sports.

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Swim Africa Limited (SAL). FILE PHOTO | NMG

“We’re slowly beginning to see sports as a career and approaching it as a business,” he says, noting that his was the first sports company in Kenya and the region to be ISO-certified.

I’m eager to know what business has taught him about himself 20 years on. “That I never stop grinding,” he says with a burst of enthusiasm. “Whether it’s to find new business or to implement projects, I never stop until it’s done.”

It has also taught him that yesterday’s success does not matter today and that “I must raise the bar for myself every day.”

Like every former student of Starehe Boy’s Centre, James recalls passionately about the “regime that subconsciously drilled discipline into us.” “We were taught that from whom much is given, much is expected. Much doesn’t mean a lot,” he recounts on his passion for volunteer work. The coach is married with six children. His eldest son is 25 and the youngest is nine. Betty Matharu, his wife, is a criminal justice expert and “the engine of the company.”

At 47, James believes his life is on an incline. He is in a stage of intense activity, to build a legacy, and to have fun. I ask him what spurs him on. He quotes Scottish author William Barclay.

“There are two great days in a person’s life: the day we’re born and the day we discover why.”

How did he discover his why?

“The defining moment came in 1996 when I discovered I was meant to build people, to nurture coaches and leaders using sports,” he says.

James trained at YMCA after leaving school, where he did volunteer work. But it is his training at Montessori as an early childhood teacher that laid the groundwork for his career, developing values and skills in children.

If he could rewrite his path, he would not have been raised in Mathare in Nairobi “where I went through a very rough time as a child” and argues that “no child deserves to be born in poverty.”

Had he not been rescued from slum life and given a new lease of life by a couple from New Zealand, he says, he probably would not be alive today.

On family roles, James belongs to the school of thought that a man was created to work. The inability to provide makes a man vulnerable, sometimes breeding discord in a family, he says.

“I take my children to the best schools that I can afford: schools that provide for their intellectual and other needs. I don’t hold back on investing in good nutrition and a comfortable home for them.” His family lives on a one-acre farm in Kiuna in Nairobi. Even with the abundance, the reality of an unpredictable life lingers. “You can’t hold on to material things. They don’t matter because you can lose them.” What matters are values: humility and an unrelenting desire to help others.

“I would fear losing my mental stability and spirituality. With these elements intact, I can always rebuild my business.”

I ask him what relationship he has with his former home in the slums if any. “It’s always nostalgic to reconnect with my roots,” he says, transported in thought. “I was there recently for a food donation drive.”

Of his possessions, which one is he most jealous about? “My body,” he says with a wry smile. James is unswervingly faithful to his gym routine, the result of which is a lithe physique.

James travels a lot, both for business and leisure. He has toured Europe, the Americas, Asia, New Zealand, and Australia, to experience a different life than his slum roots ever promised. His favourite destination? “New Zealand,” he says with a wince. “I travelled all the way to thank my guardian angel. The trip was important to me because she died shortly afterward.”