On her SYM 200cc, Rosemary Owino can’t find another word other than ‘freedom’ to describe what riding bikes feels like. She smiles, almost in a reverie as she describes the sensation, “I’m in control and can literally ride into the sunset!” She talks animatedly about her passion for bikes.
Her love for two wheels however fades in comparison, maybe even into oblivion, on a hierarchy. Her greatest passion is the sport of tennis and when it comes to ‘the game of love,’ it’s either feast or famine for her. There are no in-betweens. Over the years, she’s either done it all or not at all.
In her last year of high school at Mukumu Girls, Ms Owino stumbled on some old wooden racquets while on the school field as a punishment.
Next to the racquets were some old tennis balls and looking around, she saw a net set up between two posts on a patch of tarmac where an actual tennis court once lay.
She bounced the ball awkwardly – up and down – before another girl came over and asked if she wanted to play. The two-some came back the next day, and the next.
It went on like this until when the volleyball team – Mukumu’s pride and joy – were next going out for competition, Ms Owino asked if the tennis ‘team’ could join.
“We went out and matched the volley-ball team’s win!” she remembers of her first time competing. In fact, they made it to the Nationals where Nairobi’s team wiped the floor with them.
The seed was sown.
In letters to her cousin in Nairobi, Ms Owino relayed her new found love and as chance had it, her cousin lived next door to a tennis coach.“I begged my mother, through my brother, to let me go to Nairobi,” Ms Owino says of her path to the big city.
Father of the modern game
On the night she arrived in Nairobi, her cousin took her to meet the coach. Ms Owino shook Peter Wachira’s hand for the first time that night. She didn’t know it but she was in the presence of the father of the modern game in Kenya.
“He said I should go to Public Service Club the next morning,” Ms Owino recalls.
Eager to please, Ms Owino was at the agreed venue the next day. She was shocked when she was asked to hit on the wall by herself, day after day. “He didn’t seem to realise that I’d played in the Nationals,” she says sarcastically.
A relationship however quickly blossomed and Ms Owino discovered her now passion – coaching – when she asked coach Wachira to let her play with a young girl who was under his charge.
She quickly took to it and was noticed by among others the now Secretary-General of Tennis Kenya, Wanjiru Mbugua-Karani. Coach Wachira’s parting words when Ms Owino got her first client was, ‘Don’t take any less than a Sh1,000!’ And on her way she went.
Her family had all along thought it a flavour-of-the-week fad that would soon move her on to a ‘real career’ as a banker, her family’s trade.
“My late brother called me and said, ‘It’s time to stop this foolishness, you need to get a real job!’” Interviews were set up. She didn’t honour them.
Pushed to a wall, Ms Owino found herself in an office in the middle of town, clutching an envelope with school certificates. Before it was her turn, she ran out. This wasn’t for her.
Her brother kicked her out of his house that night. He would later come around and even fund a bus-ride to South Africa – to and fro – which Ms Owino begged for. “I told him it would change my life,” she says. And it did.
Her perspective towards the sport of tennis grew from a local view to a global one.
Since then, Ms Owino has coached and worked with the best of players in Kenya and Africa. She was a stalwart at the High-Performance Centre in Pretoria, South Africa where she was based for close to a decade.
Feather to her crown
To add a feather to her crown, she served as sports scientist in charge of the nitty-gritties of athletes’ performances with the Kenyan team at last year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Asked about how she coped with the tall order that is the Olympics, Ms Owino hearkens her memory to watching Mozambican legend Maria Mutola take Caster Semenya through her paces at the High-Performance Centre back in the day in South Africa. The likes of Isaac Makwala were only a wave away.
These days, Ms Owino and her partners run an academy called Extreme Tennis where they’ve gone back to basics and are trying to bring up the next generation of tennis superstars – hers is a life of extremes.
Epitome of coaching
She retells what she calls one of the most profound experiences of her coaching career.
“We were playing the Davis Cup final in Egypt against Zimbabwe. In the middle of the match, it gets tight. I believe we can win this match. I turn to Ismael Mzai and say ‘What are you comfortable with doing between these two things?’ He turns to me and looks me straight in the eye and says, ‘Coach, you tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it!’”
In Ms Owino’s book, to get a player to a level where they completely trust you and will do anything you ask them to do, that’s the epitome of being a coach.