Culled From PUNCH
She has ruled the Nigerian table tennis women’s singles for 14 years and has been an African champion for six years.
Offiong Edem has an astonishing five All Africa Games gold and a silver under her belt, and has reached the quarterfinals of the Commonwealth Games on three occasions.
But Edem wants to end her career in a blaze of glory by winning medals in the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games.
“My target is to be among the best in the world,” the ping pong player told our correspondent online during the week.
Born on December 31, 1986, in Calabar, Cross River State, Edem started playing table tennis on her grandmother’s dining table.
She was good at football, karate and swimming. As table tennis was not an important sport at her primary and secondary schools in Calabar, Edem never dreamed of playing it at the top level someday. But when she decided to give the game a try, she never looked back.
Edem said, “I started playing table tennis on my granny’s dinning with my sister whenever she attended church services or meetings. One day, I decided to go outside our home to play because I was bored playing at home. I paid to play at a tennis centre in our street and I enjoyed it. I was a regular player of the game there and I became popular in the neighbourhood because I was winning games.
“It was at the table tennis centre that coach Coco Bassey popularly known as AKA Atama discovered me. He loved the way I played and advised me to come to the stadium (UJ Esuene Stadium in Calabar) to train.
“I was shy and I didn’t want to go to the stadium to train but he didn’t give up and kept persuading me. He kept telling me that I was talented in the game. I later succumbed to pressure from the coach and decided to go to the stadium to train– and that’s where I met my current coach – Richard Edem. He’s the one who trained me to become who I am today.”
Under Richard’s tutelage, Edem became the national women’s single champion in 2000 after defeating Idowu Oshonaike in the Star Cup final.
She was just 14 when we she achieved the feat.
Ever since, Edem has bestrode the Nigerian women’s table tennis like a colossus. She has defeated the legendary Funke Oshonaike and Bose Kafo, who are undoubtedly two of Nigeria’s best women players in history.
Aside from momentarily losing her title to her Cross River State teammate and training partner Cecilia Otu,Edem has held on to her title since she stepped into the spotlight in 2000.
She said, “I cried when my coach asked me to play in the women’s singles at 14 – after winning the Under-17 Star Cup.
“I wanted to remain in the junior category but my coach (Richard) told me one thing which I will never forget. He said, ‘my girl you are Under -15 but your game is stronger than Under- 21. These women here are scared of you because they know you are to going to beat them’.
“His words motivated me and I decided to face the challenge. I beat Idowu Oshonaike (Funke Oshonaike’s younger sister) in the final.
“The then national coach Babatunde Obisanya included me in his team for an African championship in Egypt, where we cleared all the under 14, 16 and 18 gold medals.”
Edem continued her winning streak on her return to Nigeria. The media and table tennis fans began to take much more than just a passing interest in her game and her promotion to the number one spot in the national women’s rankings did not come as a surprise.
And it came as no surprise when Obisanya invited the youngster to camp ahead of the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games. Edem was one of the table tennis players who boarded the Team Nigeria’s plane to England for the Commonwealth Games following her strong performances and winning form during the qualifiers and training.
In Manchester, Nigeria won gold in men’s singles thanks to Segun Toriola and picked up silver in men’s team event.
Edem failed to progress beyond the quarter-finals.
Meanwhile, Edem did not receive support from her parents in the early stages of her career. Her father, who was in the army, wanted his daughter, who is sixth of his eight children, to become a doctor. And did everything to stop her from continuing with the sport.
However, Edem had made up her mind to pursue a career in table tennis and would not succumb to pressure to call it quits with the game she had grown to love.
She said, “My parents never supported me at first. Though my mother never had an issue with my playing the game, she was not in support.
“But my dad was different. He didn’t want me to get near the tennis board. He would flog me each time I returned from practice. But in spite of the beatings I got from him, my father never denied me of my rights as his daughter.”
The athlete’s parents had no choice but to support their daughter when she continued to pursue her dreams of becoming a table tennis player, in spite of the beatings she got each time she returned home from training.
“Yes, my parents were very happy when I became popular,” the former France-based player, who studied Physical Education at the University of Calabar instead of medicine, which was her father’s choice, said.
“My dad is proud of me and I have never denied him of his rights as my father because he tried to stop me from playing the game.
“Despite having problems with him because of the game, I still loved and respected him.”
Edem added, “I have no regrets about my decision to pursue a career in table tennis – against my father’s wishes.
“Table tennis has given me a lot in life. I have travelled to many countries because of the game. I’m known everywhere and I’m happy about this.”
The former Grand Queilly Table Tennis Club player, who participated in the just-ended World Team Table Tennis Championship in Tokyo, Japan, has been in the country since she called it quits with the French outfit over one year ago.
Edem had told a Lagos-based newspaper, “I am just tired of staying abroad. I have been in Europe for five years and being alone for that long for a lady is not really good. I tried to make friends but I discovered that those I met were into bad business.
“And there is this mentality in Europe, when you are alone as a lady the guys feel you should just have babies for them and nothing more. Their main intention is to get you pregnant. So I said to myself there was no point in living in Europe. I think I have seen it all.”
However, Edem is set to resurrect her professional table tennis career. This time around, the player has decided to try her luck in Spain.
“I have been training since I returned to Nigeria but I will be going to Spain any moment from now,” she told our correspondent.
With the World Team Table Tennis Championship over, Edem has her sights firmly set on this summer’s Commonwealth Games in Scotland.
The player insists she is ready for the Glasgow 2014 challenge and hopes to break her Commonwealth Games quarterfinal jinx.
Edem believes she has a realistic chance of winning a medal at the Commonwealth Games – and this could happen in Glasgow.
She said, “Winning a medal in the Olympic Games is not that easy for us (Africans) because the Chinese are very good at the game. They have dominated it and they won’t let any medal get to us.
“I have always lost in the quarterfinals of the Commonwealth Games. But this time, I believe I’m going to win a medal because I’m in good shape.”
Edem still hopes to get a shot at an Olympic medal and says she will continue to work hard and try to keep on improving on her performance.
“I want to win an Olympic medal to be among world’s best table tennis players and believe I can realise my dream,” the ping ponger, who was bundled out in the preliminary rounds of the 2012 London Olympic Games, said.
Edem says she is interested in becoming a coach after calling it quits with the sport “just to share my talent with the younger ones”.
She added, “But I will take whatsoever comes my way after retirement in good faith.”
The player, who won two gold at the Algiers 2007 All Africa Games and improved on that by winning three gold and one silver at the 2011 edition in Maputo, Mozambique, maintains there is nothing wrong with veterans such as Segun Toriola and Funke Oshonaike still representing the country.
“Toriola and Oshonaike are representing the country because they are still very good at the game,” Edem said.
“It’s not that they are still around because the game is not developing in the country.
“Oshonaike is still playing very well because women do not need much energy in the game; it just requires skill and brain.
“We have seen some players in other countries still playing at 40 and above.”
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