Funke Oshonaike: Return of the African Table Tennis Queen 

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After doubts about Nigeria’s table tennis team’s participation in the recently concluded African Championships in Morocco, due to lack of funds, 42-year Olufunke Oshonaike sponsored herself to the championship and also proved that age is just a number as she emerged the new African women’s table tennis champion. This victory is coming 16 years after she first won the coveted African title. Kunle Adewale reports

Last Sunday, Olufunke Oshonaike emerged the new African women’s table tennis champion after overpowering her Egyptian opponent, Dina Meshref in a keenly contested game to win Nigeria’s second title at the African Championships in Morocco.

“I knew it was going to be tough because Meshref was the African champion and she had been unbeaten in the last two years. I just told myself to go out there and have fun and show my experience. When it started working, I gained more confidence.

“But when the match was 2-2, my coach, Segun Toriola, told me not to give up and I kept on going and it worked for me at last. This victory means a lot to me; that I can still become African champion at my age. It shows that nothing is impossible regardless of age inasmuch as you put your mind to it. I am so happy despite the challenges of making it to Morocco. I feel great and I am so excited that I can still do it. This is also an inspiration for girls; no matter your age, you can achieve whatever you put your mind to in life.

 “It means a lot to me after a long time of waiting. I never expected it. I never even dreamt about it. It was like as if I’m still dreaming,” an elated Oshonaike said after the game

The six times Olympian said her feat in Morocco was a lesson to up-coming ping pongers.

“My victory in Morocco is a lesson to the young ones that they should not give up irrespective of the challenges they are facing in the country. A lot of things are happening in Nigeria that could frustrate one, but still they should not give up. Forget about what the coaches are doing or what the country is doing to you, just be focused and love and enjoy what you are doing and surely, you will get there one day. Even when you are married with kids, you can still get to where you want to get to.”

She has kind words for the President of the Nigeria Table Tennis Federation, NTTF, Enitan Oshodi.

“I’m so happy that he is at the helms of affairs of table tennis in Nigeria. If not for him, I would have thrown-in the towel. He was the one that really encouraged me to play in the championship and I would like to thank him for everything he has done for table tennis in the country. However, he alone cannot do it, the sports ministry should work more and encourage more sponsors and help take table tennis to what it used to be before, so that we can our table tennis glory back from the Egyptians.

“Things were not the way it used to be when we started the game as a young schoolgirl years back. Then, there were a lot a competitions, which kept us busy and also helped to improve our skills, but not so any more. This is very unfortunate and its really taking its toll on the upcoming players; it’s the main reason table tennis in Nigeria is going down every now and then,” the German-based player.

Asked when she hopes to quit the game, Oshonaike said: I’m not going to stop playing until I find anybody that could beat me. Until the young girls are ready to take over and if they are not ready, I’ll keep on playing for my country. After all, my family and children are not disturbing me. They love seeing me play. But as soon as I see any serious contender, I’ll throw-in the towel and take a bow.”

The player is hoping to one day, coach the national team after her career which she admitted was at its twilight if the Nigeria Table Tennis Federation deemed it fit to contract her as a coach. “I would gladly accept the offer to coach the country if it would mean adding quality to Nigerian table tennis.  After all, I’m over 40 years with lots of experience in the game during my long stay abroad. I understand those areas many Nigerian players are lacking which have in most cases prevented them from rising to the world stage in the game,” she noted.

Her feat however did not go unnoticed as the Minister of Youth and Sports, Solomon Dalung, advised Nigerian athletes to emulate the performance of Oshonaike.

In a statement issued by his Special Assistant on Media, Nneka Anibeze, the minister said her performance at the just concluded ITTF Africa Senior Championship in Agadir, Morocco, was remarkable and a pride to the nation. He noted with satisfaction that Oshonaike reclaimed her African women’s singles title at the Championships 24 years after winning it. Dalung said that the ability of Oshonaike to remain competitive at the continental stage at 41 years, was proof that an athlete could remain relevant for a long time if he or she was disciplined. He added that Oshonaike’s performance in the competition where she won the mixed doubles silver alongside Segun Toriola and a gold medal in the women singles was a pointer to that fact.

“There is nothing like impossible with the right levels of preparation, mental strength and the desire to win,’’ he said.

He called on other sport federations to emulate the “self-sufficient stance” of Nigeria Table Tennis Federation, stressing the need for sports federations to establish vibrant marketing department saddled with sourcing for funds to run their activities while the government would continue to create the enabling environment for sports to thrive.

For every glorious career, there is always a starting point; Oshonaike’s foray into table tennis began at her teenage years in elementary school in the streets of Somolu, a bustling town in Lagos State. At that age of her life, passion for the sports helped to water the ground for this life expedition. While in Somolu, Oshonaike started developing this potential which she describes as a ‘talent from God’ using a makeshift table and soak away slabs to play the game with her elder brother.

From there, the ship took sail to her secondary school, where she started representing the school at competitions, earning her awards and recognition from the school principal, who recognised this budding talent and decided to propel her to greatness. This opportunity did not only launch her to limelight, but set her apart as a rare talent.