RUTH MWANGI: Playing table tennis competitively

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Twenty-six- year-old Ruth Mwangi, a prolific table tennis player and public relations professional, says table tennis may look like a breeze but it requires a lot of calculated coordination, energy, and endurance.  She speaks to EDNA GICOVI about her love for the sport and her recent success in Germany.    

There were many options for extracurricular activities at Our Lady of Fatma Girls High School in Thika. Ruth Mwangi was nearly spoilt for choice during her first year. She tried handball then volleyball, both of which were too rough for her liking. She also tried badminton, which though interesting, seemed to have such a long waiting list.

Towards the end of the second term of her first year, she was only a spectator at the table tennis courts. She would pass by regularly to watch the games, which she found rather interesting. She admired the fast play and quick reactions, aided by the speed and dexterity of the players as they hit the little plastic ball back and forth. It all seemed too easy. Being a regular spectator, she was soon noticed by the school coach who invited her to join the table tennis team. This marked Ruth’s first encounter with the sport.

“How hard could it be?” Ruth thought when she first held the wooden bat. All she had to do was not miss the ball.  She however realised that the game was much harder than she had anticipated during her first try. She kept missing the ball. It was a little frustrating but the coach urged her on, encouraging her to keep playing even when she constantly missed. The warmth and support she found at the school’s table tennis team is what made her stay on and also fuelled her enthusiasm for the game.

It took her about six months to grasp the skill and start playing competitively for the school. She would practice every evening after classes together with the team and during her second year at the school, she was made team captain. During one of her school holidays while in form three, a friend took her to visit St. Teresa’s Table Tennis Club at St. Teresa’s Catholic Church in Nairobi’s Eastleigh Estate. She joined the club after several visits and learned several valuable lessons that greatly improved her technique and made her a better player, though she couldn’t yet play in club tournaments as she was in boarding school.

Ruth continued to play table tennis at St. Teresa’s after high school and was registered at the Nairobi Table Tennis Association (NTTA) in 2004.  Since then, she has had the pleasure of playing in various games in different parts of the country and interacting with many other table tennis players. She has played in various club tournaments such as the St. Teresa’s Open, Arya Open, Chairman’s Cup, and the Nairobi Open, where major table tennis clubs in Nairobi play competitively.

She has also been called upon to referee in various tournaments, most notably, the East Africa Inter University Games held in December 2010 at the Kenyatta University and the Kenya Inter University Games held early this year at the University of Nairobi. She has also refereed severally for the NTTA annual leagues. She enjoys refereeing and anticipates doing it on a larger scale in the future.

She took a break from the game sometime in 2006 owing to increased work and school commitments but was back on track in late 2007 when she got the chance. Though she has received recognition for her playing and dedication to the game, one of the awards that have stood out for her includes a trophy for second place at the annual Kengen Open in Naivasha in 2008. “I really did not expect to win anything at the tournament as there were many clubs and companies with very talented players,” she says with modesty.

Playing in Germany…

Ruth recently traveled to Germany for an annual table tennis exchange programme started in 2007 between St. Teresa’s Table Tennis Club and a tennis club in Germany. By 2010 the programme had grown to be an exchange between the NTTA and the Bavarian County in Germany. She traveled with a team from the NTTA on August 18 to play against the German team in a series of tournaments at the Walsdorf Open.

 

“We were there for about two and a half weeks and had such a great time touring the country and meeting the mayor of the Bavarian County, visiting the parliament building in Berlin and meeting the Immigration Attaché of the Kenyan Embassy in Berlin,” says Ruth of her time in Germany.  She took second place in the women’s singles at the tournament, another success that has stood out for her in her table tennis career.

Members of the German team bagged both the men’s singles and doubles awards. “The team was quite talented but they also had home advantage. Let’s see how they fare when they play in Kenya next year,” she says with a light touch. The annual exchange programme alternates between Kenya and Germany and the German team will be playing here next year.

The NTTA team flew back to Kenya in early September. “One of the things that really stood out for me while in Germany was how much support the German government gives to all their sportsmen and women,” says Ruth. She looks forward to the day that Kenya will adopt a similar trend for all its sportsmen and women.  “This way”, she says, “we can have more people following their dreams and getting involved in sports professionally, which, in the long run, also benefits the country.”

She was also inspired by the passion of the young German players she encountered at the tournaments. “We had people as young as 13 playing at the tournaments and I was really inspired by their dedication to the game,” she says.

Everyone should take up a sport…

Ruth, a last born in a family of four, also heads the public relations department at Swahiba Youth Networks, a non-governmental organisation located in Kibera that reaches out to, and empowers, young people through outreach programmes that include character development, family conflict resolution, behaviour change, discipleship and HIV and AIDS awareness. The organisation also provides sponsorship for formal education and vocational training.

Ruth says it’s great that she can use her table tennis successes to inspire the young girls in the slums that her organisation reaches out to. “I hope they can inspire them to take up the sport once we are able to get funds for equipment. I look forward to training them,” she says.

She also hopes that more ladies can join and excel in table tennis in Kenya. “The challenge is that most take up the game when in high school or college, and some of them are very good at it, but they never follow it up after leaving school. It would be great to have more ladies represent the country and playing in different tournaments,” she says.

Though optimistic that table tennis and other less recognised sports will grow to become career sports, she urges everyone to take up a sport. “We have to get out of the mentality that we have to get paid to do something. None of us at NTTA are really making any money from playing the game. For us, it is a passion. As much as the monetary aspect is important, your passion for something has to exceed getting paid to do it. The notion that you have to get paid kills the passion,” she says, adding that there are a lot of rewards that come with taking up a sport, more so table tennis.

“It’s great for health and fitness, keeps you mentally sharp because of the thinking, planning and strategising involved, can be played almost anywhere if you have the space and equipment, and it’s fun!” says Ruth, adding that the benefits afforded by the game are much more than anyone can pay you to get involved in the sport.

According to Ruth, anyone can play table tennis, but just like any other sport it requires dedication. “It usually seems quite easy from an outsider’s perspective but it is somewhat challenging and this is what makes it enjoyable. There’s something new to learn or perfect every day,” she says.

Away from table tennis, Ruth loves to sing and is a member of the Twakutukuza choir that stages a concert annually to raise funds for cancer patients. She also teaches Spanish once a week at Ivy Kindergarten in Nairobi’s South C Estate.

Her parting shot: “Put God first in everything you do. When you get an opportunity to get involved in something positive, seize it. Don’t spend too much time thinking. You never know where that opportunity could take you.”

Published in November 2012

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