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Chris Napier recounts “dream trip” to Uganda as Team Canada’s physiotherapist

Team Canada physiotherapist Chris Napier describes the experience of travelling to Kampala, Uganda for the IAAF World Cross-Country Championships.

World Cross-Country Championships
World Cross-Country Championships
Photo: provided.

By Chris Napier

This past week I travelled to Uganda as the physiotherapist for the Canadian team at the IAAF World Cross-Country Championships. I have been around the world with different sports and have been to the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and IAAF World Championships. This was a dream trip for me, though, as cross-country was my first sport, my first success and my first love. To be able to accompany our national team to the highest championship race, in the region that produces the most distance running talent of anywhere in the world, was nothing short of extraordinary. I met some of the heroes in the running world, including my childhood idol Sebastian Co e—even having the opportunity to converse with him about the impact of technology in the sport, which as a child growing up I would never have dreamed of. The team did very well under difficult conditions and I was proud to be a part of that success.

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But aside from the performance on the race course, I was even more proud of our team’s accomplishments off the course. Elite athletes are often judged to be selfish and self-absorbed — indeed some level of those attributes is necessary to their success. But the group I travelled to Uganda with — most of whom had never travelled outside of North America let alone to Africa — not only showed an interest in the country and the people who were hosting us, but also a compassion for their struggles and an openness to learning about their culture and way of life. The buses were late, the coffee was not always there in the morning, and one athlete’s phone was even stolen out of his own hand from a bus window. However, complaints were rare and everyone left with a little more perspective on what is really important in life and in this world that we all share.

This was a dream trip for me, though, as cross-country was my first sport, my first success, and my first love.

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On our first day in Uganda several of us visited an AIDS support organization (TASO) that has been doing amazing work throughout the country for 30 years. Lisa Brooking (whose “day job” is as a nurse) spearheaded an initiative to collect medical supplies to donate to the organization. We were greeted with ceremonies and song and dance, and a passionate and proud explanation of the importance of the work that they were doing. The experience was so genuine and impactful that we were the ones leaving with a feeling of indebtedness. The following day most of the team visited a market and a mosque. The team was dressed up in traditional clothing and learned not only the history of the temple, but given a practical lesson on the correct way to pray in Islam. On the final day before the race, another group of us visited an orphanage to donate several bags of clothing, baby supplies, and money that had been gathered by the team. Again, the athletes and staff left that experience feeling that they were the ones who had been given something. Upon leaving our hotel for the airport, several of the hotel staff remarked to me that they would miss Team Canada. They said it in a way that conveyed an appreciation of our openness and a gratitude not for the material things we left behind but for the willingness to embrace their country for what it was and learn from our experience there. I had the sense that our team had been singled out for this praise.

All of this is not meant to be a pat on the back or to congratulate ourselves on how we shared our superfluous items with needy Africans. We all came home from Uganda richer than when we left and the athletes and staff will forever have a different perspective on what is truly important in life. Moreover, in a time when athletes are perceived as being self-absorbed, I was inspired by the way this team conducted themselves and hopeful that it will have a lasting impact on their lives beyond sport. At a time when the world is closing its borders and looking after self-interests, it gave me hope that as Canadians we can be better and keep openness and cooperation alive. It benefits all of us.

Chris Napier is a physiotherapist with Restore Physiotherapy in Vancouver and was part of Team Canada’s support staff while in Kampala, Uganda. He can be found on Twitter @runnerphysio.