How Kenya's Malkia Strikers defied odds to seal Olympics slot

Monday January 13 2020

Kenya women's national volleyball team skipper Mercy Moim is welcomed by traditional dancers at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on January 10, 2020 upon the team's arrival from Cameroon where the team qualified for the Olympics. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Kenya women's national volleyball team skipper Mercy Moim is welcomed by traditional dancers at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, on January 10, 2020 upon the team's arrival from Cameroon where the team qualified for the Olympics. PHOTO | SILA KIPLAGAT | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

DAILY NATION
By DAILY NATION
More by this Author

"Wacu umemaliza? Harakisha mazoezi iko karibu kuanza (Wacu, are you done? Hurrry up, the training session is almost beginning)," Kenya women’s volleyball team’s left attacker Leonida Kasaya would be heard shouting from her room, borrowing a water heater from setter Jane Wacu before a morning training session.

Kasaya would finish boiling two jugs of bathing water for herself, and there would be more than 10 players still patiently waiting at the door of her room for their turn to warm their own bathing water.

Such are the troubles that the players endured while camping at Stadion Hotel in Kasarani, Nairobi, as they were preparing for the African qualifiers for 2020 Olympics which they eventually won to secure the sole ticket reserved for Africa at the Olympics.

For the three weeks the team was in camp, the team lacked basic facilities like hot water for bathing, television for entertainment and players were not supplied with internet connectivity.

But against the odds, Kenya finished the five-nation tournament unbeaten to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in 16 years.

"We did not have hot shower, so one of us had to purchase a water heater which we would share. Once it became dysfunctional due to overuse, we had to bathe using cold water," said Wacu.

Advertisement

"We decided to focus on the task ahead because being at the Olympics meant a lot for us," said the award-winning setter.

And the problems didn't end there. Libero Aggripina Kundu had to carry her own TV aerial from home for the team to access local TV stations during their stay at Stadion Hotel.

And, after incessant requests to the hotel's management, one TV remote was made available to the 17 players in camp and this one also had to be shared.

Then there was the issue of internet and coach Paul Bitok had to go out of his way to purchase a Wi-Fi router for his players. The only downside to this is that it could only accommodate six users.

"Since it could only accommodate six users, we used to share amongst ourselves. One wing would use it in the morning and the other in the afternoon. But this became too hectic and we had to purchase another one by ourselves," revealed Wacu.

On the court, players had access to the main hall at Kasarani Indoor Arena but were occasionally forced to move to the warm-up gym to give room for other non-sporting activities.

NO HOLIDAY

The sessions were so intense the girls had only one day off (Christmas Day), after which they remained in camp, including on New Year's day.

"We talked to them to sacrifice the holiday and concentrate on the qualifiers because it was so close to the competition," said Bitok.

But the biggest show of commitment was from assistant coach Japheth Munala who lost his mother a week before departure to Cameroon for the qualifiers.

He remained in camp the entire duration preparing the team. Munala also travelled with the team to Cameroon and only returned last Wednesday for his mother's funeral after the team, christened ''Malkia Strikers'', beat Cameroon a day before. The tournament’s top scorer Sharon Chepchumba also played with a knock for the five days.

INJURY SCARE

She had to spend long periods with the physiotherapist Sarah Karongo icing her left ankle to reduce the pain and to enable her play.

"I never thought I would be fit enough to play by the time we were leaving. I was in so much pain but the coaches gave me confidence during the recovery process,” said Chepchumba.

"Against Cameroon, I played with so much pain because I landed badly in the third set. But the whole team was depending on me to score," she added.

Despite all their struggles, Malkia Strikers beat the odds, only dropping three sets to emerge winners with 11 points.

Gladys Ekaru, 20, who was the youngest player in the team, said qualifying for the Olympics would take her career to the next level.

"When I started playing volleyball six years ago, I never thought I would reach such a level. This is a dream come true for me," said Ekaru who was a primary school student in 2004 when the team last played at the Olympics. "I am looking forward to performing well at the Olympics and even secure a professional deal abroad."

Skipper Mercy Moim and Wacu can now look forward to retirement with a grin, having played at the biggest stage of world volleyball.

“This is my birthday month and I feel like I am celebrating my birthday again," remarked Moim after the crucial win against Cameroon last Tuesday.

Advertisement