To regular users of the Goonellabah Sports and Aquatic Centre (GSAC) Gabriel Thiongkol is a familiar face. Thiongkol, 22, has been working at the centre as a lifeguard since 2009.
But when he leaves GSAC next week it won’t be to further his swimming skills. He has won a place at the Australian College of Basketball in Melbourne.
It has been a long time coming.
At the age of six Gabriel escaped war in Sudan with his family. He lived in a Kenyan refugee camp for 11 years, and lost both his mother and his father.
At 17 he came to Lismore with his siblings, finished school at Lismore High and got a job as a lifeguard at the Goonellabah Sports and Aquatic Centre to support his family. All the while he never lost sight of his dream to play professional basketball.
‘I started playing when I was about eight… I was a soccer player first but I was born so tall,’ says Gabriel, who has already been training for four hours by 10am. ‘Basketball is a great game; I feel free when I play.’
At the Australian College of Basketball he will spend two years studying a Diploma of Sport Development and training five days a week with basketball greats such as Phil Smyth and Andrew Gaze.
‘It’s just magical, an opportunity like this. This is what I’ve wanted, what I’ve been missing, what I’ve been looking for, and I thank God I found it. It is really beautiful.
‘I’m going to keep pushing forever. If I get knocked down I just have to keep getting up. It’s not going to be easy to study and train so I have to listen and focus and keep fighting.’