Siphiwe Baleka Looking to Qualify For Olympic Games as 50-Year-Old

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Siphiwe Baleka Looking to Qualify For Olympic Games as 50-Year-Old

At 50 years old, Guinea Bissau’s Siphiwe Baleka is hoping to swim in his first Olympic Games in Tokyo next summer

The year 1992 was supposed to be when Tony Blake would swim in the Olympic Games for the United States. He had dreamed of getting on the plane to Barcelona at the peak age of 21, and was hoping the 1991 US Open in Minneapolis was his opportunity to showcase himself as one of the best in the world in the 100 freestyle. A native of Oswego, Illinois, a relatively small town about 48 miles west of Chicago with a population of less than 4,000 in 1990, Blake was a 5’8″ sprinter on the Yale swim team and was the first black swimmer to be named First Team All–Ivy League.

“It was my last, best shot of ever qualifying for the Olympics,” he said to Sports Illustrated in a recent cover feature. “I got myself to a point where I felt good about my chances.”

But on the day of the race, he hadn’t swum up to expectations, and missed qualifying by 0.8 seconds. A consoling friend said he could always try again for the Atlanta Games in 1996. But Blake knew that he’d be 25 by then, practically geriatric, he reckoned, in the dog years of swimming. Right there in that Minneapolis cool-down pool, he tearfully administered last rites to his dream. “I was heartbroken,” he says. “This was the first time I wanted to do something and couldn’t do it.”

After graduating from Yale in 1996, Blake found work as a long-haul truck driver, delivering for Prime, Inc. based out of Springfield, Missouri. It was during these long drives across the country, that he became appalled by the unhealthy lifestyle of truck drivers due to the extensive driving periods where exercise is nearly impossible to come by. In times where he wasn’t rushed to meet time to make a delivery, albeit seldom, he would go for rides mid-route on a fold-up bike he kept in the cab.

It was during this time that Blake researched his ancestry and on his paternal side, he descended 100% from the Balanta, an ethnic tribe from West Africa. While the Balanta span several countries, in Guinea-Bissau they represent the largest ethnic group and roughly one-quarter of the population.

He traveled the world and all around Africa. While in South Africa he met with tribal elders. They said that when a son of the soil returns home, a new name is conferred on him. They dubbed him Siphiwe (pronounced seh-PEE-way), a name common among the Xhosa and Zulu tribes. They said it means Gift of the Creator. For a surname, they chose Baleka, an anagram of “A. Blake” that variously (and appropriately) means “fast” and “he who had escaped.”

Baleka has reached out to government leaders and tribal elders in Guinea-Bissau and is trying to earn citizenship so he can represent the country at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo. If he succeeds, he would be the first swimmer to ever represent the nation at the Games since Guinea-Bissau made its debut in Atlanta in 1996.

Right now his best time in the 50 freestyle is a 24.96 that he swam at a meet last year in October. In Rio, he would have been 61st with that time out of 85 total competitors.

To read about Siphiwe Bakela’s story, read the Sports Illustrated feature here.

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