Most athletes first discover their talent at school. Or perhaps in the sheltered bubble of their own backyard, willed on lovingly by their parents. For Julius Achon, it was on a battlefield.
“I remember one evening I was playing football with my friends and about 15 of us were captured by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda. We were given AK47 guns and walked 300 kilometres into bushland with the rebel leaders.”
Just twelve years old at the time, Julius was at the mercy of his captors for three horrifying months, regularly drugged, tortured and beaten into submission.
“One time I was ordered to kill a gentleman. Because I refused, my boss told me to lie down while he caned me. I was in so much pain, I couldn’t sit on my backside for an entire week.”
When government planes started shooting at the rebels, Julius and his friends seized the opportunity to escape. Nine were shot dead, and six of them, including Achon, survived, running 300 kilometres through dense bushland home.
Achon, who’s uncle John Akii-Bua won a gold medal in the 1972 Olympics, soon realised running was not only something he was very good at, but an escape from the crippling poverty of Northern Uganda.
The beginnings of a champion
Not only did Achon discover his running ability on a battlefield, but his very chance at an education depended on it.
“My parents were too poor to afford the school fees payment. I had two options, to run for a free education or to leave the village.”
And so, he kept on running. He blitzed his first school athletics carnival and qualified for the district championships, only to discover there was no public transport available to get him there.
“I remember crying to my mother because I really wanted to make it. In the morning, I just took off. I ran 72km to the district carnival. I have no idea what time I arrived there, but the sun was still up.”
“When I got there, I was so scared because all the other competitors had shoes. All this time I had been competing with no shoes.”
“I won the 1500 metre. I was so little, probably only 47 or 48 kilos. But very fast.”
And his prize? A 20 litre jerrycan for fetching water. The first of its kind in his village, people came for three days to get a glimpse of it. Perhaps this was their first indication that ‘the boy who runs’ was a little more special than most.
At the age of 17, Achon was chosen to represent Uganda at the world athletics championship in Lisbon. It was a week of many firsts: going overseas, travelling by plane and running with spikes in his shoes.
He won a gold medal by 12 seconds, prompting a flurry of invitations to train in the US under American coaches.
“And I was like, ‘yes, I want to come’. For me it was a stepping stone. I was always looking for what was ahead to move me forward. How can I get a free education? How can I make it to the Olympics?”
“I just knew I didn’t want to go back home, I already escaped from brutal captivity. I saw people killed. Going home was not an option.”
A reason to run
After the winning gold at the world athletics championship, Achon returned to Uganda as a national hero; even receiving $500 from the government as a thank you.
“My mum said, ‘my son, where have you stolen this money from’? Because we had never seen that much money. For us, $10 would take such a long time to get.”
In 1995 Achon flew to Portland, Oregon to begin his freshman year at college. In 1996 he broke a 20 year collegian record for 800 metre race, going on to compete at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. But his success was overshadowed by a building anxiety over the civil war in Uganda.
“All this time I was training, and I never knew if my parents were alive. I would hear on the BBC that Lira was being bombed, but there was no way to get in touch.”
Achon returned home in 2003 and was reunited with his family, who were safe and well. But a chance encounter opened him up to an entirely new set of family members.
“One morning when I was out running, I saw 11 orphans lying under a bus. They said their parents had been shot, so I took them to my Mum and Dad’s place, who took them in.”
Over the coming years, Achon sent $100 USD per month home to pay for the orphan’s food and schooling.
In 2004, while training for Athens, he heard the tragic news that his mother had been shot.
“They needed $1000 for the surgery, but they didn’t have it and she died,” Achon said, the words no easier to utter fourteen years later.
“This became my motivation, my reason for running.”
Seeds of hope
In 2008, Achon met Australian Olympic runner Eloise Wellings, when she was training for the Beijing Olympics in Portland, Oregon.
‘Who’s soup is this on the floor?’, he teased, gesturing to the pool of sweat on underneath her training bike.
They got chatting and Wellings vented that she was feeling a little down because of a recent foot injury.
“I said to her, ‘If I tell you my life story, your foot problem is nothing. I was abducted, saw my friends being killed, I made it to the Olympics then my mother was killed and now I am struggling to send $100 per month home to my orphaned siblings.’”
From that moment, Achon and Wellings – a person who he describes as ‘having a lot of love in her’ - struck up an instant friendship, supporting one another on and off the field.
When Wellings travelled to Uganda for Achon’s wedding in 2009, she was taken aback by the nation’s poverty.
“Eloise and her family came to my village and saw all of the orphans sleeping on the floor. They were in tears and wanted to do something to help.”
At that time in northern Uganda, there were no crops or rice, and people were dying daily of famine, so Achon suggested Wellings donate $100 to buy some 300kg of seeds.
“And that’s how Love Mercy began. From $100,” Achon declares proudly.
Co-founded by Wellings and Achon in 2010, the Love Mercy Foundation empowers communities in Northern Uganda through their ‘Cents for Seeds’ program.
Women receive a 30kg loan of seeds such as beans or sesame, reinvesting their earnings into food, education, and health care.
“People use the income to buy food, clothing and pay medical bills and school fees. Everybody has benefited. Almost 90% of the community have sent their kids to school.”
“By 2020 our goal is to give seeds to 20,000 women.”
‘Fight like a lion’
In what seemed like a natural progression for Achon, in May 2016 he ran for parliament, and won with an overwhelming majority.
“Many of the higher ranking politicians have access to the western world and they live in a vastly different way to most Ugandans. Uganda is very corrupt.”
“But me, I don’t have that capacity. I’m part of the community.”
In his role as Otuke County Member of Parliament, Julius wants to address schooling, health and infrastructure in his community.
“I requested for electricity from the government, which will be implemented for the first time in my community in 2018.”
“Health services are also very critical. Our current health centre can’t meet the demand, and if someone needs more serious treatment they have to be transferred more than 200km away.”
For Achon, it seems, tackling Otuke County’s systemic poverty is just another of life’s battles to be overcome. And while he is ever-positive and up for the challenge, it takes its toll.
When the going gets tough, Wellings is there to egg him on.
“Me and Eloise, we love one another. If I’m upset, she settles me down. Sometimes it’s hard to come from a community where we have some much demand.”
“But when I go back, people are so happy. They are dancing and singing and they thank me for coming back for them. It makes the hardship worthwhile.”
Charitable and political pursuits aside, Achon is still running. Often with Wellings by his side, careering down a picturesque coastal stretch near her home in Sydney’s southern suburbs.
“I’ve always given Eloise tips on her running,” Achon remarks. “I tell her, ‘Fight like a lion. Run like the rebels are chasing you. Don’t ever give up’.”