What goes on in a man’s mind when he wants to attempt the seemingly impossible? How do you brave the odds to meet the challenges posed by people rated as quicker, faster and younger than you?
These are some of the questions Nigeria’s table tennis amazon, Olufunke Oshonaike has answered time and again.
Oshonaike has been written off by people, who don’t understand how her mind works and the force behind her continued quest to meet every challenge. Like the eagle’s feather, she has developed the knack to molt into a new creature, with a positive force that confounds her adversaries.
Last month in Tunisia, Oshonaike braved the odds to qualify for her seventh Olympic Games. By beating Cameroun’s Sarah Hanffou in her final group match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Tunis, the former African women champion became the first woman to qualify for a seventh Olympic Games. She also matched her compatriot, Segun Toriola on the number of appearances at the Games.
For a player, who has gone through depression, suffered all sorts of deprivations, qualifying for yet another Olympic Games is a feat that compensates for all the odd nights.
“I’m very excited to be the first female to be going to seven Olympic Games. It wasn’t an easy task but I thank God for the achievement. I did it for Nigerian and African women,” she writes in her Facebook page.
She recalls the difficulties she faced last year, which nearly made her quit the game when everything seemed to be against her.
“I went through depression last year. I was crying almost every day. I was heartbroken by many people. I developed high blood pressure and now I have to live with it.
“I was operated on two times. My left arm was even injured. I couldn’t play table tennis for a long time after All African Games in Morocco. I had another surgery this year in January, I cried bitterly.
“My name was not on the Africa Top 16 list, I was very sad because I was supposed to be there for the competition. I fought but lost,” she said.
At many different points in her career, Oshonaike has had to face obstacles from some people, who, she says, ‘are supposed’ to be on her side. Some of these are officials, who believe that she should leave the stage for younger ones even when those expected to take over from her are not yet ready for the task.
These critics found justification in their quest when Oshonaike was beaten by a 19-year-old homegirl, Nimota Aregbesola at the 2018 National Sports Festival in Abuja. But the player, who made her Olympics debut at the Barcelona 1992 Games, has defied the pressure to make what she describes as her last quest for glory at the Olympic Games.
She says she owes a lot to those people that kept faith with her in her trying times.
“The same people that planned the removal of my name tried to remove me from Olympic qualification but God is greater. The Minister of Sports in Nigeria and some good people rescued me.
“I have been having sleepless nights because of these mischievous people. I have a lot to talk about but I leave it for another day.
“Tokyo 2020 here I come. Seven times Olympian. Don’t give up on your dreams,” she said.
At 41, the star, who has outlived some of the best-known names in the country’s game, says her ambition is to groom the younger ones to greatness in the game.
“Table tennis is something I have the passion for, so much so that over 41 years I am still playing. Sometimes, the situation of the country tends to weigh me, I think probably it is because of my German lifestyle I am used to, and over there things are quite different. But I realise that this is Nigeria and we have a way of doing things. I am hopeful that one-day things will change.
“I have been spending my money to represent Nigeria lately and I can’t remember the last time I was paid any allowance or the last time I was rewarded for winning for my country.
“I am very hurt about a lot of things that are happening in sports in Nigeria but because of the love I have for my country, I am still trying my best to keep on keeping on. That’s my decision,” she stated.
Oshonaike, who is the most decorated Nigerian woman table tennis star, reveals that she has done some bizarre things in her quest to win honours for the country.
She recalls, “I got pregnant during my career and I was confused about what to do but I kept it and I was still playing professionally till I was seven months pregnant, which is like a taboo in Nigeria.
“I even played the African championship and won it, though nobody knew I was pregnant. I gave birth to my first child in 2003 and I played at the All Africa Games the same year and won four gold medals for Nigeria. My child was barely six months old.”
Oshonaike began her table tennis career on the streets of Shomolu, a bustling town in Lagos State. Then in primary school, Oshonaike learned most of her tricks while playing with her older brother on a makeshift table and soak away slabs.
“I started playing table tennis at the age of 12, during my primary school days in Shomolu and I was driven by the belief that it was a God-free given talent and the fact that my elder brother played was also an inspiration. We had a small makeshift table to play with before somebody in my street bought a table tennis board and from there a coach discovered me.
“Then I started representing my school, the state, and the country. At the state level, I won several awards and was also recognised by the state.
“The journey has been wonderful for me, and I have no regret whatsoever. Table tennis has taken me everywhere and given me everything I have achieved today. Though there have been some challenges, that is life nothing good comes easy. There have been good and bad times in my career, but I try to move on despite these ups and downs. One of the saddest moments in my career was during the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2011 when I was dropped from the team. Despite that, I did not lose faith in the team and the country; today I still represent the country.”
Apart from the numerous conquests on the table tennis hall, love has not been kind to Oshonaike. She has lost a loved one and been betrayed by someone, who was supposed to be her best friend.
She reveals, “I was physically, sexually, emotionally and mentally abused by a man that was 10 years older than me. This man beat me for more than three years and I remember always going to UNILAG with a battered face, but I still never gave up on table tennis, men or living.
“I went to see my boyfriend of 10 years and I saw him sleeping in bed with his girlfriend. I was heartbroken. The next day I had to travel to Australia, (for) Sydney 2000. I cried all the way from Nigeria to Australia but I never gave up on men and my training.
“I was duped of all my property and my bank account was in his name. I left everything without looking back and I started my life all over again. It was very hard for me, but that was my decision.
“I fell in love again with my best friend here in Germany. Three months to our wedding, he went to Nigeria on holidays and he was shot by armed robbers. I went through hell here in Germany without him. I mourned him for two years, stopped going to Nigeria because of him but still never gave up on table tennis and living. That was my decision.”
Oshonaike, who started her romance with the Olympic Games at Atlanta 1996 and has been to the Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016, has overtaken Mozambique’s Maria Mutola in the number of appearances at the games.
Coronavirus permitting, Oshonaike will be writing another chapter in the Olympics record books when she lines up among the contenders in the table tennis event at the Tokyo 2020 Games.