Saturday, 20 December 2014

My 77-year-old dad still cooks for me – Funke Oshonaike

My 77-year-old dad still cooks for me – Funke Oshonaike

National table tennis star, Funke Oshonaike, takes a memory lane in this compelling story.

When an athlete shows deep emotion after a victory or loss in a competition, not many can comprehend the implication of such reaction. If athletes fail to win in an event, some of them could go as far as crying to ease the inner pains and relieve the heavy burden of coming to terms with the disappointment. It is also a response to not meeting the expectations of so many people looking up to the athlete to excel. The reverse is the case for a victory. The joy of a victorious athlete knows no bound but interestingly some could also go as far as shedding tears but that could be described as tears of joy.

Athletes participate in competitions banking on some motivating factors to enable them to accomplish set goals in their various disciplines. Some of them will listen to music to get inspiration shortly before an event. Many others think about their relatives, coaches or loved ones to excel. For table tennis queen, Funke Oshonaike, it is her father, Mr. Olujuwon Oshonaike, that is the motivating factor. He has been a solid pillar behind the huge successes she recorded over the years. In very dicey situations, she told our correspondent that she looked back at all the efforts of her father in the early years of her career.
She said: “He is such a great man. I call him my number one fan because he is always there for me. If I play 20 matches in Lagos in one day, he will see all. He loves to see me win games and if I lose, it affects him even more than me such that I will be the one consoling him to forget the defeat. “It is always rare to see parents supporting their children to go into sport at a tender age but mine was different. I had the support from both of them with a promise that I will also face my studies. Each time I want to compete, I think of the various ways my father has been motivating me to get results.
“He borrowed money to buy me my first set of kits for the game – the racket (bats), trainers and jerseys.It was tough and I knew it. There was no other option for me than to do well because of the huge support and the confidence reposed in me by my number one fan, my father. I always work hard to make him happy by winning and winning. It gets to him anytime I lose and so it is not an option to lose a match.”Oshonaike’s 30-year-romance with table tennis began in the streets of Somolu, Lagos at the age of 10. She was then a primary six pupil of Community Primary School, now Olaolu Primary School, Somolu.
It was not a deliberate attempt to start a career. It was just one of those pastime children engage in after hours in school. She found herself in the company of boys who loved table tennis so much and she had to join. “They made me to develop love for the game because they attached so much importance to it and taunted one another on a daily basis over results. We made use of any available space. We rarely used boards; we used space in front of houses or long seats just to knock the ball to one another. It was fun because later on, I started beating the guys as well. It became a big issue,” she said.

In the Apata area of Somolu, Oshonaike became so popular with her table tennis exploits such that people placed bets on her to win games. Not only that, people also gathered round to watch her display her skills to the delight of lovers of the sport. “Huge crowd do gather to watch me in Somolu. I was so small then, I was in the last year of my primary school education. I played against male adults and beat them. Some of them will bet on me to win. I knew nothing about the betting. For me, it was fun. I was enjoying the fame. “People would point at me in our area as the girl with the big heart.
I guess the crowd that used to watch me play then and the early exposure to playing against boys helped me later because I usually played my game without intimidation.” Because of the talent she exhibited in Somolu, a man took Oshonaike to Rowe Park (a sports centre in Lagos) where it was believed she could be nurtured into a star. A female coach in Lagos State known simply as Toun started the basics for her in the game. It was another experience entirely as she had to learn the proper way to hold the bat, how to toss the ball and how to apply the various technicalities of the game in concrete terms.
When coach Toun saw the potential in Oshonaike, she took her to another coach also in Rowe Park, Dele Olasumbo, popularly known as Malawi. The coach, a stern disciplinarian, took over the grooming of the 11-year-old girl. “It was tough working with Malawi. He was very strict and will not take ‘almost’ from any player; he wanted you to get it right 100 per cent. I was ready to work hard and gradually I understood him. I thought he was wicked but later realised he wanted the best for me. He made me what I am today because foundation is crucial in any sport discipline.
What I learnt from ‘Malawi’ is still helping me till date,” she noted. Our correspondent visited the Apata Street house where Oshonaike grew up. Of course people there could still recollect her exploits and they are still following her progress in the sport. The landlord of the house, Mr. Dele Onabule, spoke highly of the national athlete. Onabule said: “Nobody believed she would become such a great star. She started by playing with boys sometimes when they were trying to stop her from playing, she will quarrel with the boys. She was well-behaved and a role model. Despite the little difficulties experienced by the parents at the time, she made sure she was satisfied with what her parents provided. She concentrated on her studies and sport.

When she started making money, she invested a lot in the parents and the junior ones. She sends money to me through the father who still comes around once in a while. We all love her because she remains humble.” Saturday New Telegraph also spoke to Titi Koiki, who called himself an ‘area brother’ of Oshonaike. He said: “I was among the few people that started teaching her how to play the ball. She started by picking balls for people and later started playing on the pavement. Later, we created a small table and she grew in confidence. She is very humble and has really made us proud in this area.”
Osonaike later attended Igbobi Girls High School from where she moved to the University of Lagos.

 Interestingly, she did not really enjoy her youth because of her brilliance. She joined the national table tennis team at the age of 14. Till date, she is still a national team athlete. As a junior athlete and a secondary school student, Oshonaike was beating the senior players. She was one of the junior players who sent the old ones packing early from the scene. In the early 90s, she opted to take part in a national competition sponsored by Coca-Cola instead of the National Sports Festival.
“I could have won the gold at the festival but decided to test my skills with the senior players. I did not win but was in the semifinal after beating three top-rated players then. That was my turning point and I was promoted to the senior cadre of the national team,” she said. So far, she has spent 26 years in the national team and Oshonaike has lost count of the number of events she had attended and medals won but she has represented Nigeria at five Olympic Games. She was number one in Africa for about six years. In the African Top 16 tournament held in Lagos earlier in the year, the Germany-based ping ponger won the silver medal.
The 2003 All Africa Games will always be in her mind with fond memories. She was a nursing mother and she won four gold and two silver medals to emerge the best Team Nigeria athlete at the event, helping the country to clinch overall first position for the very first time in the continental multi-sports event. The table tennis queen is the third in the family of 10. The mother, Mrs Olayinka Oshonaike, gave birth to a set of twins twice. “I am very close to my mother but somehow my dad is equally close because he does special things in his own way,” she said. Mr. Oshonaike is 77 years old but he still finds time to show care to all his children.

The attachment to Funke is because of his love for sport. “I love sports and I am impressed that Funke listens to me. She is also very humble despite her fame. Such a daughter is worth everything you can do for her,” he said. Interestingly, the man still enjoys cooking for the daughter anytime she is in Nigeria. Her favourite food is “Ikokore,” a delicacy from the western part of Nigeria, Ijebu- Ode, Ogun State. Oshonaike added: “My father still cooks my favourite food for me. He is a good cook. Without telling me, he will just prepare the meal to surprise me.
Each time I travel to Nigeria, he will welcome me at the airport with a bowl of “Ikokore”cooked by him. At 77, that’s astounding. I don’t know where he gets his strength from. If am travelling out of Nigeria he will still follow me to the airport. I cherish those special things he does for me. “He is simply amazing. He understands me but sometimes we do quarrel and it’s always heated because we are both stubborn.” The Sports Club Poppenbuttel of Hamburg player met her husband, Kevin Irabor, in 2002 in Germany and they got married two years later traditionally.

Later a white wedding took place in Germany. The union is blessed with two kids-Divine (12) and Unique (8). She quantified combining her duty as a wife, mother and an international athlete that travels sometime away from the family for two months or more. “It has been God helping me to balance it. I cannot say it is easy but my boys understand me such that when I return I try to make up for the period I was away.” Oshonaike is looking forward to returning to Nigeria after 20 years in Europe. Her first point of call was Italy, where she spent four years playing for two clubs before moving to Hamburg, Germany. “I want to return home for one full year and if things work out, I will permanently relocate to Nigeria with my family,” she said.

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