Funke Oshonaike has been around the table tennis court longer than any other woman in the history of the sport in Nigeria but she’s not in a hurry to quit the game that has brought her fame and fortune.
In this exclusive interview, Funke tells the amazing story of how determination and God’s grace took her to the top of her career.
An interviewer’s delight, the Lagos State born ping pong queen also talked about the big battle of keeping randy men at bay, her many challenges, regrets and table tennis. Enjoy it
Q: May we meet you
FO: My name is Funke Oshonaike, a professional table tennis player, I live in Hamburg, Germany and the CEO of funkeoshonaike foundation. I’m from Agbowa in Lagos State
Q: How did table tennis start for you
FO: I started playing table tennis on soakaway pit/wooden table. I was actually following my brother and I used to be a tomboy.
Q: Was anyone into sports in your family before you
FO: Yes, my brother but not to the sSate level
Q: What was growing up like
FO: Growing up was fun in Somolu and on the streets of Lagos. People were always surprised when they see me playing table tennis on the streets and I got a lot of support, some even gambled on me. My school also supported me.
Q: How easy was it for you to combine sports and education
FO: From primary 1 to 5, I was always coming 1st or 2nd in my class but when I got to primary six, I came 4th. I cried bitterly but my dad never got mad at me because he knew that it was because I was combining sports with education. It was not so easy for me because I love to be the best in both. Most of the time, I had to travel or leave school to go for competitions, so it affected me a lot. That’s why up till today I’m not good in mathematics. I remember when we were preparing for the 1991 All Africa Games in Cairo, Egypt, we were in camp in Ilorin for almost a year, so I had to change my school from Lagos to another one in Ilorin. It was hard combining both though but I made it because like I said I love schooling a lot back then.
Q: When did you realise that you could take sports seriously?
FO: When I was discovered on the streets of Lagos and then taken to Rowe Park to get better. That should be around 1985/86.
Q: When did you have your big break in table tennis?
FO: When I won the first senior championship at the age of 16. My elder brother started with me then handed me over to coach Olasumbode (coach Malawi). To me, there’s no one like him.
Q: Were your parents all for you doing sports ?
FO: My parents supported me a lot but my dad supported me more. He was always with me, wiped my tears, borrowed money to buy my first racket! In fact, after God it is my Dad.
Q: You’ve won so many medals which do you cherish most
FO: The most cherished is the All Africa Games, COJA 2003 in Abuja. My fist child was just 6 months old and I won 4 gold medals for Nigeria! I was the best sports woman that year.
Q: If not sport what would you have been doing
FO: I wanted to be a newscaster back then because I always watched the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) network news. I liked the way the women dressed and the way they read the news. I also wanted to be a lawyer.
Q: Secret of longevity in sports
FO: I love sports, I have passion for it, I’m disciplined, focused, dedicated, eat healthily, wonderful family that’s supporting me, I’m happy with sport for now.
Q: When did you turn Professional
FO: 1994 in Italy and the first time in the national team was at the age of 14, I represented Nigeria in Ghana as a junior player
Q: How were you able to keep the guys away as a young beautiful girl
FO: Guys! Guy!! Guys!!!. It was easy growing up because like I said I was a Tom boy! But the temptation was huge more from agbalagba (older men) back then! Thank God that my parents taught me well and they always warned me about men and how God will be angry with me if I messed up. So being religious really helped me in coping with them. It was not easy then because some of them wanted me so much that they were giving me a lot of gifts. But thank God that it never moved me. I will say it was actually easier back then than now but I know how to handle it all without disrespecting anybody. That’s why I keep to myself a lot, I don’t go out, always within the sports premises. But sometimes it can be very tough though but to God be the glory for everything.
Q: How did you meet your husband. What was the attraction and did you play hard to get.
FO: We met in a shop in Hamburg, Germany. I liked his down to earth personality back then but it wasn’t love at first sight. I didn’t play hard to get and today I have two boys, age 14 and 10. They’re stubborn, energetic and brilliant like me.
Q: Tell us about your dad, mum and siblings
FO: My dad is 80 year old now but he was there for all the 10 children. My mum is somebody I look up to because she’s very religious and patient. We are 10 in the family -4 boys and 6 girls. 2 sets of twins. A sister in England and a sister in France. All married except the last boy, Taye.
Q: Most difficult sporting event ever attended
FO: All Africa Games in Congo because I wanted to qualify by all means for the Olympics. It was not easy and too much stress for me with table tennis and outside table tennis.
Q: When are you quitting table tennis
FO: Maybe after Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Q: Football enjoys more support than other sports in Nigeria, how does this make you feel
FO: I get very angry, not with the players though but the Sports Ministry. We don’t even get 30% support and that’s very very unfair to other sports. Aside that, they still treat them better at games where they will win only one medal.
Q: Aside table tennis what other sport interests you
FO: I used to play all rackets games back then
Q: Do you watch football
FO: I don’t like football because it’s boring to me!!
Q: Any regrets in life
FO: Non that I can remember. God has been good to me.
Q: Give us a rundown of major events you’ve participated in
FO: All Africa Games since 1991, 6 times Olympian, uncountable World Championships, many Africa Table Tennis Championships, 4 Commonwealth Games etc
GE: You’ve never won an Olympic medal
FO: No!!! Painful but as you know table tennis is dominated by the Chinese
Q: What was your experience like first time out of Nigeria
FO: Nice!! I had problems with the food! I couldn’t eat salad then because I was just a local girl.
GE: Most embarrassing moment
FO: When I had stomach upset on my way home from the stadium and I had to stop at the fuel station late at night to beg to use their toilet. The toilet was dark and I screamed when I got in because it was filled with water. That day was one I can never forget. The rest is a story for another day.
Q: What did you do with your first earnings in sport
FO: I gave it to my dad
Q: First sports legend/celebrity you ever met
FO: Michael Jordan
Q: Is the Tennis Federation doing enough and what’s your impression about the sport in Nigeria
FO: Things have to get better with the NTTF. Sports in Nigeria is dying. We have to go back to the way it used to be. Government has to do more because corporate bodies are not ready!! They have to do more in sports before it dies completely.