An east Dulwich man has won the 400 metre race at the European Para Athletic Championships, breaking the European record in the process.
Columba Blango ran in the T20 category for people with intellectual disabilities at the championships in Poland on Tuesday night, June 1, coming home in 47.9 seconds – well ahead of the chasing pack.
Columba, 29, had already broken the record in the heats that morning, with a time of 48.54 seconds. He is now first in the Paralympic rankings and is likely to go to this summer’s games in Tokyo.
“I cruised the heat this morning, but I knew tonight I would need to go hard from the beginning in the final,” he said afterwards. “I knew I could pick up from 200m, I just had to keep going and going.”
“I’ve been chasing a time under 48 seconds for a while now, so it is a big surprise for me today. I am so glad I could get it today; it is all part of the process.
“I’ve always dreamt of this moment since I was a kid. I don’t think it’ll be my last time [on the podium], there is much more to come, but I want to enjoy it. I’m going to cherish this moment.”
Columba grew up in south London and still lives in east Dulwich with his family, working in Primark in Peckham part-time while training.
His father, also called Columba, took part in the decathlon at the 1980 Olympics for Sierra Leone. He later moved to London and became a Liberal Democrat councillor in Southwark, and served as mayor of the borough.
Columba Jr. was in intensive care for about four weeks after being born, after suffering blood clots on his brain due to a difficult birth. He was left with speech and cognitive problems.
Columba Jr. was unable to speak until the age of six, but with help from NHS therapists and staff at St John’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Rotherhithe, he largely overcame his problems. He still has some cognitive issues, which qualify him for the T20 category.
He went on to study Tourism Management at Greenwich University before going back into training alongside work.
Columba Jr, who also runs 200 metres, has an athletics coach but his father said he still takes an active part in his son’s training process.
“I give him strategies, discuss his strength,” he said. “I motivate him, look at his training programme. I comment and give him tips on a few things, on his diet, his sleep, his resting periods.”
“When he has a competition I try to talk him through, to encourage him to go on YouTube to see what other top athletes have done. I talk him through all of that and do a lot of motivational work with him.”
Columba Sr. was not able to join his son in Bydgoszcz for the championships because of Covid-19 restrictions, but would otherwise have been cheering him on from the sidelines.
“I’m sad not to have gone with him because I’ve been some kind of inspiration for him. I show him my Olympics pictures, my training – how I got there.”
Columba Sr. added that education was always a priority for his son, despite his clear athletic prowess.
“I have always identified him as somebody who is talented. He was top of sports at school. I decided he will continue his education and do as much training as possible while at school, because you don’t want him to sacrifice his education.
“My whole idea was ‘you’ve got to do both’. School for me was the priority. Because you will reach the age where you can’t do sports any more and you will need something to back you up. The academic qualification will be your back up. I encouraged him to do as much as possible in sports but take his studies seriously.”
Columba Sr. said he did the same as a young athlete. “Sports at some point come to an end,” he added. “I’ve seen a lot of top sports people come to the end of their sporting career and because they don’t have any qualifications they have struggled to get on with the rest of life.”
His eldest son is now in the Navy after studying electrical engineering at Greenwich – but is a talented footballer and played at county level as a boy.
“There came a point where I had to make a decision,” Columba Sr. said. “Football is even worse [than athletics]: you have to be extraordinarily talented and you have to be very lucky.
“This is the line I take with my children: I think about their future. Sports come to an end, and they have to have that academic grounding – typical African mentality!”