When Julius Achon arrived in Kampala, he left behind his family and everyone he knew. He’d never lived in a city, and every day he was learning more and experiencing new things. For example, living in the dorms at the high school to which he’d earned his scholarship, he slept in a bed for the first time.
He also continued to run – and win. Even so, Achon felt the prejudice from other students because of his Northern Uganda roots. In 1992, another student named Helen was so jealous of the attention Achon earned through his running that she tried to poison him. He suspected that the bread she gave him was not good and threw it out; finding the next day that it had killed a number of rats, birds and flies that thought they’d found a delicious dinner. (Helen was expelled from the school.)
Achon continued to run well, and won another National Championship in his last year of high school in 1994; after which Uganda decided to send Achon to the World Junior Championships in Lisbon, Portugal. For his first plane ride, he got to experience another first: wearing shoes. He was the only athlete selected to go to the meet, traveling with a coach and arriving in Lisbon only the day before the meet. Before the race, the coach gave him a pair of spikes; and upon arriving at the meet, Achon saw his first rubber track. He had only time to try out the spikes for his warm-up before competing in the 800; in which he finished 4th in 1:48.87. For his second race, he was more used to the spikes; he ran a 12 second PR to win the 1500 in 3:39.87.
It was in Lisbon that John Cook saw Achon run. Cook, then coaching at George Mason University, immediately saw Achon’s talent and his drive to succeed in life, and offered him a scholarship. It was only one of 21 scholarship offers to US colleges that Achon received while in Lisbon, but thanks to Cook, Achon left Portugal with a plan to continue running with a collegiate career in Fairfax, Virginia. Even more importantly, he would be able to continue his education and earn a college degree.
All through high school in Kampala, Achon was not able to talk to his family back in the Lira District. The Lord’s Resistance Army was still terrorizing villages in Northern Uganda, and Achon didn’t even know if his parents were still alive. When he finally arrived, his family was scared that the vehicle driving to the village was bringing a body; that was the only reason they could fathom for a car to be arriving. When his family saw him, they were overjoyed; they’d followed his running career on the radio and knew about all of his success.
He arrived with $2,000, a gift from the Ugandan government to celebrate his gold medal. When he gave it to his parents, his mother said, “My son, where have you stolen this money from?” The amount was more than most men in his village could earn in three years.
After his visit with his family, Achon again set out for another amazing chapter in his life. He had to gain NCAA eligibility, so in 1995, he ran for a year at the Southern University of New Orleans, a NAIA school. Moving to the United States opened a whole new chapter of firsts: seeing his first computer, his first experience seeing students wearing their own clothes instead of uniforms, and eating his first fast food – a Whopper … he hasn’t had one since. During this year, he set two NAIA records in one day with wins in the 800 (1:46.68) and the 1500 (3:42.42).
1996 was his first year running for George Mason University. At GMU, he won the indoor mile at the NCAA Championships twice – in 1996 with a 4:02:83 and in 1997 with a 3:59.85. He still holds the NCAA record for the outdoor 800 – a blistering fast 1:44.55, which he ran in May of 1996.
Achon was chosen for the 1996 Ugandan Olympic Team, and named as the team captain, meaning he led the Ugandan team into the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta. He felt surprised to be selected as the team captain; he felt that any of the athletes might have been chosen in his place. Honored by the designation, Achon’s experience at the Atlanta Games helped him understand his leadership qualities; and how the people in his life had helped create the person he was becoming.