Australian distance runner Eloise Wellings is preparing for the summer Olympics in London with an added motivation from beyond the athletic track. A chance friendship with a former Ugandan child soldier turned running coach has inspired her to help the people of northern Uganda rebuild after nearly three decades of violent unrest.
The 29-year-old athlete, who has been competing internationally in the 5-kilometer and 10-kilometer events for 14 years, qualified for Australia's 2012 Olympics team.
It's the injury-plagued runner's third shot at Olympic representation. Repeated stress fractures have forced her to pull out of two previous Olympics, including the 2000 Games in her hometown Sydney. This time she is running for more than gold.
After befriending a champion Ugandan runner who says he was one of notorious rebel leader Joseph Kony's child soldiers, Wellings set up a charity to help women and children affected by the conflict.
“I’ve got a bigger goal and a bigger passion: to help the people that I have met in Uganda,” Wellings said.
Following her withdrawal from the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to a stress fracture to her hip, Wellings headed to Oregon for rehabilitation under the guidance of a specialist coach.
The trip was instrumental in changing her focus and inspiration. There she befriended assistant coach Julius Achon, the former child soldier.
“He had gone from being captured by Lord's Resistance Army rebels at age 12, to running in two Olympics," Wellings said.
From the early 1980s, children in northern Uganda were caught in the crossfire of a civil war between the Ugandan government and rebel groups. Tens of thousands of children were kidnapped by rebel groups and forced to fight against government soldiers and their own communities.
Nearly 2 million people were displaced over the decades of conflict, the United Nations says. Since 2008, the Lord's Resistance Army has killed more than 2,400 civilians, abducted 3,400 others, many of whom are children, and displaced more than 400,000 people, Human Rights Watch said.
Achon, now 35, was abducted by Kony's rebels from his village near the northern Ugandan city of Lira. The rebels killed his mother, he said. He said he escaped after three months when a Ugandan government plane bombed the rebels' camp. Many of the child soldiers he'd befriended weren't so lucky, he said. He saw nine of them shot by rebels as they tried to flee.
After his escape, Achon took up competitive running. He won many races, he said, and eventually a scholarship to study and train at George Mason University in Virginia. Achon reached the Olympics in 1996 and 2000, representing Uganda in the 1,500 meters. Back injury forced his retirement from competition in 2007.
While driving Wellings to training each morning, Achon told her of his past. He shared his dream of rebuilding his war-ravaged village and his struggles to provide for 11 orphans he supports.
Wellings and her family travelled to Uganda in 2008 for Achon's wedding. On return they decided to help Achon achieve his dreams and they established the Love Mercy Foundation.
“Love Mercy came about because I got a stress fracture training for the Beijing Olympics and that was probably one of the lowest points in my career,” said Wellings.
Wellings said her foundation has since built a medical clinic, provided 650 micro-agricultural loans to women and sponsors 38 children in northern Uganda's Otuke County.
Since the release of "Kony 2012," a video urging the capture of Kony that went viral online, donations to Love Mercy have risen.
“We have had many more followers on our Facebook and Twitter pages and an increase in donations from all around the country," said Caitlin Barrett, Love Mercy's spokeswoman.
Wellings’ athletic success brings publicity to the foundation, especially when she competes internationally, Barrett said.
“The more high-profile events that she competes in like the Olympics, the more exposure for us." she said. "The cause is so linked with her career, and it's so close to her heart."