Ekaru: She once hated volleyball and was on the verge of running away from Kwanthanze School

Malkia Strikers player Gladys Ekaru. [Courtesy]

Malkia Strikers youngster Ekaru keeping her Olympics dream alive

Kenya Pipeline player only loved athletics and thought volleyball was too demanding.

Had it not been for the Covid-19 pandemic that has shaken the world, Gladys Ekaru would be hoping to achieve every athlete's dream of playing at the Olympic Games in July. 

Having been in the women's national volleyball team, Malkia Strikers, that qualified for Tokyo 2020 Games, the 20-year-old would easily have made the cut and be in Japan later in the year and make her dream come true. 

However, the Olympic Games were not spared by the deadly coronavirus and Ekaru just like others around the world had to shelve her ambitions for a later date when the global showpiece will be staged. 

She also knows that the postponement of the Games will give a chance to other experienced players who were injured to fight for a place in the team and her position will be under threat.

Even so, she has refused to let the delay dampen her spirits and not even the call for social distancing and calling off of all sports activities can stop her.

Inspired by American poet and author Langston Hughes who said that one must hold fast to their dreams for if the dreams die, life will then be like a bird with broken wings that cannot fly, Ekaru is doing her best to ensure that she remains fit in readiness for the postponed activities.

"I hold individual training sessions twice a day. I run and do a complete body workout in the morning and in the afternoon, I work on my ball-handling skills," Ekaru said. 

Ekaru added that she was looking forward to a great 2020. "I wanted to make the team for the Olympics, play well in the club championships and also excel in the league. I believe that it is just a delay and that is why I'm working hard to remain in shape for the time things will get back to normal."

With the effort she puts in, one might think that she had a passion for the game from the onset.

To the contrary, she says she hated playing volleyball because it was very demanding unlike her favourite one-lap race. "I was a runner and I loved the 400m race. I had no clue volleyball existed. In fact, I saw the ball for the first time at Kwanthanze in 2016," she said. 

She joined regional secondary schools volleyball powerhouse Kwanthanze from Mateket Secondary in Trans Nzoia County after being asked to do so by Lydia Lelei, who hails from her village.

"She (Lelei) was a student at Kwanthanze and she asked me to talk to my parents so they could allow me to go with her to school because I had good height and I could play volleyball. They agreed and I joined the school in Form Two in 2016. Much to my parents' surprise, I was offered a full scholarship and all they had to do is some shopping."

Ekaru's joy of joining a boarding school and relieving her parents off the financial burden faded away when the going got tough on the pitch.

"I hated the game as I was not getting the concepts and it was very demanding so I decided to quit. I packed my bag and wanted to return home. I cried while talking to my father on phone. He sympathised with me and agreed to look for a day school once I got home."

However, Kwanthanze coach Justine Kigwari had seen her potential and was not ready to let her leave without trying harder.

"She quit and came to me with her bags, but I had seen the potential in her and even though her father had requested that I facilitate her return home, I never gave up on her. Instead, I encouraged her to keep trying and after a long talk she agreed to stay," Kigwari said.

"I designed special training sessions for her and instead of focusing so much on how to play, I gave her strength and fitness training because I realised that despite her height, she was weak," Kigwari added.

While Ekaru was struggling, her teammate Sharon Chepchumba was very passionate and was working hard to improve in the game.

"Sharon's attitude challenged me because she was very passionate and willing to learn. She was a footballer at the beginning and she learnt volleyball very first so I felt challenged not quit. I will always be grateful to Mr Kigwari because he never gave up on me," Ekaru added. 

She would suffer yet another blow when they lost to Soweto Academy in the 2016 Metropolitan games.

"I could not take it and even crying could not help me because I had heard how Kwanthanze was great yet  we were beaten at my first time at the games. That we were beaten failing to make it to the nationals hurt so much because I had just started loving the game."

It was the pain of losing that made her a better player, leading her side to both the national and East Africa titles in 2017 and 2018.

"The coach and team trusting me with the captaincy boosted my confidence because after failing to qualify for the national games, I had vowed to work harder and now the school believed in me to lead the team so I resolved to deliver and reclaim both titles."

As the captain, she won the hearts of many including the current Malkia Strikers coach Paul Bitok.

"She is one of the players I wish to nurture after school. She has the potential and will go places," Bitok said during the 2018 East Africa Secondary School Games in Musanze, Rwanda.

Bitok turned down the offer to extend his contract in Rwanda so he could return to Kenya and nurture upcoming players.

"He had been very good to us young players. In national team training sessions, he designed training for us and asked us to work harder than our seniors which has made us better," Ekaru said.

Last year, Ekaru joined former continental and league champions Kenya Pipeline before earning her first national team cap.

"I wouldn't have asked for a better club because at Pipeline, the senior players have helped me grow.

The senior players have been very supportive, not just in the game but away from the game too. Our captain, Trizah Atuka has walked with me and encouraged me to go back to school and I'm looking to pursue a course in Business Administration."

She says she must work hard to earn a place in the team to Tokyo Olympics because she will be battling for a slot in the side against the experienced Atuka, Edith Wisa and Violet Makuto (KCB) and Joan Chelagat (Kenya Prisons).

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