At home with rugby kingpin Amonde - Daily Nation

At home with Shujaa Sevens rugby team captain Amonde

Sunday April 24 2016

Kenya Rugby Sevens team Captain Andrew Amonde with fiancee Damaquelyn Omwenga during interview at their home in Nairobi. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE

Kenya Rugby Sevens team Captain Andrew Amonde with fiancee Damaquelyn Omwenga during interview at their home in Nairobi. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE 

By ELVIS ONDIEKI
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Two seconds. That is the longest Kenya Sevens rugby team captain Andrew Amonde can stay down on the field during a game before his fiancé Damaquelyn Omwenga starts getting concerned.

If he stays longer than that, she says, it could mean that he has sustained another injury.

She was watching him on TV as he broke a bone in his right hand while in action in 2014, an injury that required an operation that included the insertion of a metallic plate in his arm.

Since his recovery, whenever he is in action, he wears a black wristband on the section of his hand that was reinforced.

The wristband was in its place as a jubilant Mr Amonde lifted the Singapore Sevens trophy last Sunday after underdogs Kenya trounced Fiji to win the main cup in the World Rugby Sevens Series for the first time ever. It is a win that has captured the nation’s imagination. 

Besides the arm injury, the small finger of his left hand is crooked because of the vagaries of rugby, a game the 32-year-old has been playing since 2003.

The 2014 bone-breaking experience is still etched in Ms Omwenga’s memory.

“When I see him fall and not rise up for two seconds, I get worried,” she says. “Because the last time I saw it happen was when they were playing against Scotland. I could see he was in pain.”

But worry is not all that runs on Ms Omwenga’s mind when she is watching her man in action.

Sometimes she cries, like on the day in July 2014 when Kenya’s 15-a-side team lost 27-10 to Zimbabwe. Mr Amonde was part of the squad and Kenya needed just one point to qualify for the 2015 Rugby World Cup finals in England and Wales. Despite beating Kenya, Zimbabwe did not, however, make it to the finals after Namibia thrashed Madagascar 89-10 on the same day to qualify.

At other times, Ms Omwenga is immersed in prayer.

PRAYER MODE

As Mr Amonde was kneeling down to pray last weekend immediately after Kenya emphatically beat Fiji 30-7, she was also down on her knees in the living room of their house in Nairobi’s Roysambu. 

“I was overcome with joy. And when I saw him praying, I also knelt down and prayed,” she says, adding that the excitement at the end of the game was so intense she screamed her lungs out.

She had earlier that day opted not to watch the semi-final clash between Kenya and Argentina so she could go to church and pray for the team.

“I really needed to pray for them to win. And I feel like I made the best choice,” she recalls.

So, what did the team captain say in his prayer after the final match as he knelt, raising his hands to the sky?

“I remember I told God, ‘Thank you. It has been long. It has happened. We waited for long but your time is right; let’s enjoy this day. Thank you so much for the life that you have presented today’,” he told Lifestyle.

It is no coincidence that virtually every Shujaa player was on prayer mode when the game ended, Mr Amonde explains.

Two days before the team flew to Singapore, they had attended a three-hour sermon that stirred something in them.

A pastor at the Valley Road branch of the Christ is the Answer Ministries (Citam), he recalls, had met the team and delivered a talk about how God gives people a chance to shine in the “second half”.

The team had interpreted the sermon to mean that the previously concluded trip to Hong Kong, where they had lost to Fiji at the quarter finals, was their “first half” and the Singapore outing presented the “second half” in the pastor’s analogy.

“We felt very different when we left that meeting … We were psyched,” he says. “After every game, we would go and kneel and praise God, pray, sing a hymn then go to the changing room to do our recovery.”

Mr Amonde, who has been the captain of the Sevens team since 2012, believes the session they spent with the pastor was one of the reasons behind their historic win.

“Immediately we realised we’d won, what came to us first was, ‘The time we spent with God, the small things that we did, have made it happen’,” he says. “We are waiting to go back to that church to tell them a very big thank you.”

Mr Amonde and his fiancée spoke to Lifestyle at their house a day after the team returned from Singapore to a grand reception.

Upon arrival on Tuesday afternoon, the team was given a VIP welcome and later showered with gifts for stunning the world with two legs to go in the series that attracts tens of cheering Kenyan fans in stadiums all over the world, and thousands more watching on TV.

The notable offers included Sh10 million for the team from President Uhuru Kenyatta on Thursday, $1,000 (Sh101,147) for each player from their sponsors Kenya Airways, Sh2 million from the Sports ministry to be shared by the squad and Sh100,000 for each player from Nairobi Senator Mike Sonko.

The Kenyan team is one of the 15 core participants in a log of 19 countries that will have played in 10 different cities by the end of the 2015-2016 season that started last December and which will end in London on May 22.

Mr Amonde’s team has had a season of highs and lows and it currently stands at position seven out of 19, the Singapore outing being their most successful.

LADIES' MAN

Kenya Rugby Sevens team Captain Andrew Amonde with his fiancee Damaquelyn Omwenga during interview at their home in Nairobi. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE

Kenya Rugby Sevens team Captain Andrew Amonde with his fiancee Damaquelyn Omwenga during interview at their home in Nairobi. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE

On Tuesday, after a ride in a limousine and the reception at the Ole Sereni Hotel, the couple returned home in the evening and Ms Omwenga had to prepare the one meal that her fiancée relishes most — and which she often prepares when he returns from such trips.

“It’s like a ritual. He has to take fish and ugali,” she says. “He likes the fish fried with some sauce.”

She clarifies that he does not have an elephant’s appetite that rugby players are believed to have.

“Preparing his meals is very easy. It is nothing unique from what I eat or anyone else can eat,” she says.

During the interview, it emerges that much as it is tough to be a top-flight rugby player, it is equally demanding to be in a relationship with a man who has dedicated his life to the game.

Ms Omwenga says she has come to get used to his travelling schedule.

“It took me time to understand him. But from the moment I realised that he was a busy guy who needed to travel and work, it became easy for me. He tells me his schedule in advance and by now, I know even before he tells me; I know in 17 days they’ll be travelling,” she says.

But what about the stereotype that high-profile rugby players are surrounded by the temptation of adoring female fans, making it easy for them to stray?  

“It’s not that every rugby player is a ladies’ man. It comes with a lot of discipline. Every man has a choice about what to do. It is not only rugby guys; it’s everyone that has to make a choice. My choice is that I respect her very much and I would not want to do anything that can bring any dispute between us,” he says.

She has also had to withstand societal pressure as many people assume they are a rich couple, given her fiancée’s fame.

“I just laugh it off. I can’t pretend to live a lifestyle we can’t afford” she says, adding that it is not uncommon to find her using a matatu or hunting for a bargain in the backstreets.

“Before I met him, that was my life. It has never changed.” 

The two met at an entertainment spot in Nairobi in 2013. She was then a student at the University of Eldoret. He recalls that she did not recognise him when he made the first move, though she had previously been watching rugby matches across Kenya.

“I remember her sister telling her who I was and she said, ‘No. No way.’ I think that was just the perfect start. She didn’t know who I was and I was already the captain. I was like, ‘Okay, this is strange’,” says Mr Amonde.

They exchanged contacts and the relationship started from there. They are planning to formalise their relationship soon.

“What I like most about him is how humble he is, how understanding he is, how loving he is, how mature he is … the list is endless. It’s a lot of things that I saw in him that I still get to realise about him and learn about him that are exciting. And also, who wouldn’t want to be a fiancé of a champion?” Ms Omwenga poses.

But even as she has all kind words for him, he says she does not take it lightly when his team loses a match.

“She is my biggest critic. When we don’t perform well, she is the first person to come and tell me, ‘This was wrong; you didn’t perform according to standards.’ She sets her own standards before I even go on tour: the things that I need to do, things that we have to get right ... She tells me I’m the captain; I need to take these boys to the other level,” he says.

Both were players while in secondary school. She played hockey up to provincials at Kisumu Girls; he played basketball and handball — both games up to nationals at Kisumu Boys. He completed secondary school in 2003; she left in 2009.

Ms Omwenga did not pursue her hockey dream after high school and she is now a full-time information technologist at a Nairobi-based firm.

Mr Amonde, born in Kisumu of parents who were teachers and sportsmen early in their lives, abandoned his budding talent in handball for rugby.

Soon after sitting the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination in 2003, he abandoned a scheduled trial with the Ulinzi handball team after a friend introduced him to rugby. 

SENIOR PLAYER

Andrew Amonde in action for his club KCB. PHOTO | FILE

Andrew Amonde in action for his club KCB. PHOTO | FILE

He had never played the game in high school but on the day he accompanied his friends to the Kisumu Polytechnic grounds to have a feel of the game, he vowed to stick with it till the end.

“Since that day, I’ve never changed my mind. I think that was the best decision I ever made to go to that field that day,” he says of the day in late 2003.

Soon he was playing for the Kisumu Rugby Football Club and when he later joined the East Africa School of Media Studies in Nairobi for a diploma in television production, he moved his base to the Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) rugby team in 2005. He has been playing with the team to date, and he is the captain.

“That [KCB team] is a family that I’ve grown with in rugby since my younger days. I’m among the senior players in KCB now. The chance that it gave me and the opportunities I got with the club are so many,” he says, adding that the sponsors go out of their way to ensure players’ welfare, including a good medical insurance cover.

In 2006, Mr Amonde was called to the national team, an assignment that has seen him trot the globe in pursuit of rugby glory.

With both contracts at KCB and at the national team — which is currently being sponsored by the Kenya Airways — Mr Amonde says the sport pays all his bills as he has learnt to live within the money he gets for taking part in different games.

“Whatever we get from rugby, I’d say it’s good enough for somebody to sustain himself. And what is important is how you manage what you have. I think we’ve been living within our means. I can do with what I have,” he says.

The lifestyle of the two has won the approval of Ms Omwenga’s family.

“My sisters are his big fans. My mum is a number one fan; she was watching it live yesterday (as the team arrived at JKIA). We also watch the games with her. At times she dozes off during late night games. But she’ll be there until the end,” she says.

It is Mr Amonde’s hope that the support from his extended family and Kenyans at large will not waver as the team faces the last two legs of the Sevens series — in Paris and London — and looks forward to the next season.

“One thing I can promise Kenyans is that the two legs won’t be easy. We are going to be tested in all angles. We know we have to work very hard. We have to get everybody at the same level. The guys who were left behind, we are hoping some of them have recovered well. We expect to have a different team to go and try it again in Paris,” he says.

And his fiancé says she will keep praying for him to reach greater heights. “I’ll be asking for more victory. I’ll be asking for more strength and good health because they need to keep the cup,” she says.

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