How Olufunke Oshonaike turned her breaking point into a breakthrough
Olufunke ‘Funke’ Oshonaike shed tears of joy and sadness when she won her 2020 African Singles match in Tunis in February.
By her own admission, she cries a lot.
The Nigerian had just become the first African woman to secure a seventh appearance in an Olympic Games.
Once again Funke beat the odds stacked against her. Won a match that she wasn’t even supposed to play.
“I couldn’t play table tennis for a long time after [the] African Games in Morocco. I had another surgery this year in January, I cried bitterly,” the 44-year-old told Olympic Channel, shaking her head at the memory.
“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. The same people that planned the removal of my name tried to remove me from the Olympic qualification, but God is greater.”
Nothing would crack the battle-hardened African table tennis queen, especially when she was on the verge of history.
She struggled to hold it together and advance past another dark moment in her life.
"I was heartbroken by many people,” she said about her painful journey to Japan.
“I went through depression last year. I was crying almost every day. I developed high blood pressure. I was operated on two times.”
The pain emboldened the six-time Olympian's resolve.
And whenever quitting crossed her mind, she always reminded herself why she started.
“I still love what I’m doing. Every time I thought of stopping, I would be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to miss a lot of people. I am going to miss the team, the Olympics, the Olympic village.' It’s another world," she said.
"Though a lot of people are asking me; ‘When are you giving up? Don’t you know you are an old woman?’ But I keep telling them that, ‘If I don’t tell you my age, would you still tell me that?'
"My body tells me that I can still play very good. Why shouldn’t I continue?"
Funke was 14 when she started playing table tennis in the Akeju neighbourhood in Shomolu.
Her parents supported her new passion.
“You know the way you can play football on the streets, I played table tennis on the streets in Nigeria, on the roadside.
"I remember I also used to play on the table in my living room.”
But her style and quick rise made her an easy target for bullies.
“I was always booed every time I played at a competition back in Nigeria because I was very shy. I asked why. I was told that I was proud, arrogant and I don’t mix with people. I cried a lot,” she said of her formative table tennis years in Africa’s most populous capital, Lagos.
“There was even a time the crowd [almost] stabbed me in Lagos because I defeated my arch-rival then at Rowe Park.”
The painful past
The hostility pushed her to greater heights.
She was one of the youngest members of the Nigerian team at the All African Games in Cairo in 1991.
But as Funke cemented her place in the national team, debuting at the Olympic Games in Atlanta 1996, she faced personal struggles.
“I was physically, sexually, emotionally and mentally abused. This man beat me for more than three years and I remember always going to UNILAG [University of Lagos] with a battered face but I still never gave up on TT, men or life.”
Soon after she turned pro and moved to Italy before settling at her current base in Hamburg in 1998.
The move improved her game even as her life took another dark twist.
“I fell in love again with my best friend in Germany. Three months to our wedding, he went to Nigeria on holiday and he was shot by armed robbers. I went through hell without him.”
The 11-time African Games medallist tried to internalise her pain, although she didn’t surrender to the darkness.
She continued: “I mourned him for two years. I stopped going to Nigeria. But I still never gave up on TT. That was my decision.”
Playing while seven months pregnant
The flurry of action kept her serving and smashing through two pregnancies.
She won the women’s singles and doubles title at the 2003 African championships.
“I trained and played professionally until I was seven months because my bump was not showing in the first six months. I played at the African championships and won.
“After I gave birth I started playing immediately. I still won medals for my country.
"At the 2003 All African Games in Abuja, my first boy was just six, seven months and I won four gold medals. That was my best Games, I can never forget that.”
Three years later Oshonaike kept playing in the German league until she was six months pregnant.
She also competed at the 2006 World Team Table Tennis Championships in Bremen, Germany.
“The second boy was born also in January. I went to Algiers [2007 All African Games] when he was like six months old and again won medals.
"I used to travel with my boys to events. I remember training and they are crying. Or going to a competition and giving my kids to my coach."
The Olympics Seven club
Having a good attitude, a lot of mental and physical strength boosted her confidence as an athlete.
“I keep telling people I’ve gone through a lot in my life. People just see Funke Oshonaike and I’m always smiling but I go through a lot of pain. I cry and cry," she continued.
"You have it good, have it bad when you fall, dust everything out and keep on moving. Don’t give up on your dream.
“I know what I want and I’m going for it. In Nigeria a lot of people were telling me, ‘Funke you are 45, why are you not giving other people chances?’ I tell them, 'I’m not holding anyone down."
Her greatest desire is to join the International Table Tennis Federation’s ‘seven club’. Her teammate Segun Toriola, Belgium’s Jean-Michel Saive, Croatia’s Zoran Primorac and Jorgen Persson of Sweden have all attained the feat of seven appearances at the Olympic Games.
“The seven club has only men who have been to seven Olympics in table tennis. Only men. I will be the only woman from Africa, the whole world. That’s my dream.”
Then she wants to concentrate on inspiring her country’s youngsters to shine in table tennis.
“After Japan, Funke will throw in the towel. I want to do more but for now I have the Funke Oshonaike Foundation where I give kits [to children].
"The kids doing sports in Nigeria are from low backgrounds not from rich family. To get equipment is very hard. Because when you talk about talent, we have too much in Nigeria, too much.”
It's all about bowing out from the grand stage at her own terms and in the right way.