Sylvia Kamau, the sportswoman who led top athletes to Brazil

Sylvia Kamau,

Sylvia Kamau, the first ever female CEO of the Deaf Olympics Committee.
 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

When Sylvia Kamau started playing basketball at Menengai High School, it was just an escape for her to go on trips out of school. Little did she know that this would be the beginning of a life-long successful career in sports.

She is now the CEO of the 2022 Deaflympics Committee appointed by Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohammed that saw Kenya emerge as the top African country and took 11th place out of 78 countries that competed worldwide.

Her journey in sports did not start off smoothly. It was propelled by her determination and curiosity to learn and play basketball.

“My mother did not entertain the idea of me playing basketball. So, I sneakily did it behind her back until my brother joined the same high school. He came home earlier than I did; so my mother asked him why. Only to find out that I usually stayed behind to play sports without her knowledge. I had even played at the national level without her knowing,” Sylvia chuckled.

When she went to Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) to study commerce and majoring in accounting, she was disappointed to find that there were no active sports in the school. One day when she was in the school library, she heard the familiar sound of a ball bouncing off the ground.

Her skirt did not stop her from immediately joining a group of men playing in the court. She instantly became a regular at the court, now geared in the right attire at a place that felt like home.

“A fellow player named Chris Njunge and I decided to start the female and male university basketball teams in CUEA. It was easy for him to get players. On my end, very few ladies would show up for practice or tournaments. By the time I was getting to 4th year, the school had seen our efforts, opened a sports department and even hired a coach,” she said.

Her talents were recognised by fellow players who encouraged her to join the Barclays Eaglets club, where she continued playing the sport even after she graduated. Unfortunately, in 1999, as the team was on their way back home from a game in Mombasa, one of the van’s tyres burst, making it flip over. Six of the passengers lost their lives that day, including the team captain and the coach.

Sylvia sustained a knee injury that forced her to take a two-year break from playing the sport she loved. The accident not only took away her friends but also an opportunity for her to play with the national women’s basketball team.

Her team was also greatly affected by the tragedy when Barclays stopped sponsoring them after incurring medical costs. However, all hope was not lost as surviving team players came together to self-sponsor the team and later renamed it Storms.

From 2001, she returned to play for the team on and off due to her knee. When she started a family four years later, she decided to trade her jersey for a whistle.

When Sylvia was pregnant, she did not know how to contribute to the team but used her free time to go for training and sign up for coaching clinics. She returned to assist in coaching Storms after the baby came and a new opportunity also came knocking.

“Strathmore University was looking for a female coach. At the time, I was the only one who had done coaching courses. When I got the position, I found that the women’s team had not gotten past the lower division for three years,” Sylvia narrated.

It was the first time she was in charge of a team in the league on her own. The university administration was on the verge of doing away with the team but when Sylvia came in, she was determined to change their mind.

“When I came in, the team had already lost six games. Any other loss would have meant that they would not proceed to the playoffs. As fate would have it, I did not lose any game until the finals,” she said. In her first season, she had successfully moved Strathmore Swords from provincial leagues to nationals.

The consistency of a coach made the team steady. She also pushed for basketball scholarships to be offered to high school graduates where the university paid for half of the school fees as long as the student played well for their team and also maintained good academic performance. She went on to coach the Kenya national women’s basketball team. Apart from this, she became an International Basketball Federation (Fiba) certified coach.

“Basketball coach remuneration has evolved. When I started out, it was as little as Sh20,000. Right now, we have coaches who make about Sh300,000. You can find international rugby coaching jobs that pay up to Sh1 million per month,” she added.

She continually encouraged parents in the school that sports can be a sustainable profession.

It was not long before she became the sports director of the school which led her to get exposed to other sports such as rugby, a game she gained interest in.

Despite not ever playing the sport, Sylvia came to learn about the administration working in Strathmore because of their rugby team. She took it upon herself to dive into the rugby world, which has a rich history in the country, and understand the Kenya Cup including tournaments such as the Eric Shirley Shield. She was part of the Kenya Cup and later decided to try her hand in securing an elective position on the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) board.

“I tried the first time and failed miserably. I tried again but unfortunately my father passed away in the same month, so I gave it up,” she said.

Truly, the third time’s a charm. Sylvia became a director, elected with the highest votes with an endorsement by Kenya Universities Sports Association, with which she had worked closely while at Strathmore.

In 2018, the KRU CEO seat fell vacant and she went for it. Later that year, she made history as the first female rugby union CEO. After two years, she left the rugby world to focus on her family and went back to coaching.

“I was the only woman in the meetings, surrounded by 11 men. I could see that there were times when someone would not listen to what I am saying because of my gender. It did not set me back,” she said.

She believes that what women in such positions need to do is improve themselves. She was elected into the position because of the contribution she had made in the sports industry. Growing up as the only girl in a house full of boys, Sylvia never had an issue thriving in a male-dominated field.

“When the argument becomes tough, do not raise your voice. Raise your quality of argument,” she said.

As the sports industry continues to expand, more women have become exceptional sports managers. She recalled a time when the sports directors in four different universities were women.

Being a coach offered her the opportunity to raise her two sons since she only worked in the evenings. However, most games are played on the weekends and holidays, which was quite a task given the amount of travelling involved.

“My late husband was my number one cheerleader and a very harsh critic but he supported me and never questioned why I was into sports,” she reminisced.

Whenever she gets a chance, she educates people around her about the sports industry to help change how they view it as a hobby rather than a career.

Her appointment as the first female Deaflympics CEO in 2022 came as no surprise because of her dedication to sports.

“We ensured that we had sign language interpreters who understand both local and international sign language to help the athletes communicate easily. They can hear vibrations; so the referees would stomp their feet to get their attention,” she said.

The athletics team brought home 24 medals: five gold, seven silver and 12 bronze.

“The sports industry has not yet matured. The infrastructure and development structures are lacking. Our mothers remind us of days when estates had playgrounds. Children are also not being exposed to sports as regularly as they used to,” she said.

The national men’s rugby team has been known for conquering other teams overseas for several years but with several great players such as Collins Injera bowing out of the game, there is worry that the team may not live up to the standards set.

“Transition of players should never be a problem. The shelf life of an average rugby athlete is usually about 30 years. Coaches and scouts are spotting very talented upcoming players. The issue is financial because KRU has lost several sponsors that help sustain the union, which is not a profitable institution,” she said.

She opined that inadequate structures were to blame for not making sports a profitable profession. Players have to juggle school or work to make a living and stay fit to continue playing. When tournaments begin and players are required to travel, employers find it hard to keep an employee who has to travel almost every two months.

The greatest issue facing athletes at the moment is the lack of preparation as they retire. The transition has seen many athletes homeless or mentally ill due to lack of foresight on what they will do after retirement.

Athletes lack proper structures to guarantee adequate and consistent training and exposure to competitions. Ahead of the 2022 Deaflympics, the committee trained the athletes for only one month, which is not enough.

“One of our athletes who won bronze is a construction worker in Migori. That is what she is going back to do. Unlike her competitors who train all year, she trains on the road close to her home without any guidance or coach,” said Sylvia.

Athletes come back home to spend all their earnings from their competitions to better their families. In countries like the US, companies rush to sponsor and partner with winning athletes when they get back home but that is rarely the case for Kenyan athletes when they come back.

Sylvia has previously held other roles in her career. She was the deputy executive officer of the Kenyan Committee for Commonwealth Games held in Australia in 2018. She was also part of the Sports ministry’s advisory committee on resumption to sporting activities due to the Covid pandemic. She is currently training Equity Bank’s female basketball team, Equity Hawks. She has also coached the national women’s basketball team.

“I jokingly remind my mother when I bring her gifts from my travels that sport is what got me here. If it was left to her, I probably would have never played basketball,” she chuckled.

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