What you need to know:
- CAVB’s premier club competition starts in Tunisia on Sunday. Four Kenyan teams will compete in the men’s and women’s events to be held in Tunis and Kelibia respectively. In this week-long series, Nation Sport writer Samuel Gacharira takes us behind the scenes to reveal how coaches and players of the four Kenyan outfits have prepared for the continental tournament
Anne Lowem arrived in Ljubljana, Slovenia as a youngster full of potential but left a dejected player uncertain whether she would ever step on a volleyball court again.
What was meant to be a breakthrough tournament turned out to be a breaking point. At the Slovenian capital, her dreams were shattered, her promising career left in ruins. It all happened within a fraction of a second on that fateful day, Monday, September 11, 2017.
Kenya, in Pool “B” of the Under-23 World Championships, had already lost to Brazil the previous day and were due to take on Bulgaria in their second match. Lowem, 20, was one of the first names on Catherine Mabwi’s starting six.
Despite putting up a spirited fight, Kenya lost the first two sets before hell broke loose in the third set. What would ordinarily be a moment of joy for her teammates, ended up being a source of excruciating pain that would plunge her to the sidelines for three years.
“I was playing as an opposite so I was in position four while (Yvonne) Sinaida and (Yvonne) Wavinya were in position three and two respectively. Vero (Veronica Kilabat) who was the setter decided I’ll play outside while Wavinya remains in position two,” recalled Lowem.
“The ball was set to me and I scored the point. Normally we would huddle together in the middle of the court to celebrate the point but I could barely move after spiking the ball. I don’t know exactly what happened after I landed because I just felt a sharp pain on my left knee. I think my knee snapped because I had a popping sound,” Lowem explained, her right hand pointing to the exact spot on her left knee.
“It couldn’t be a matter of weight because I was in very good shape. I was in the form of my life but sadly I didn’t play any other game in that tournament.”
Kenya lost to Bulgaria in straight sets and there was no respite in the remaining matches against Turkey, Japan and Cuba ultimately bowing out in the first round.
But as the rest of the Kenyan players returned home eager to build on that experience and climb the ladder to the senior team, Lowem could barely walk, hobbling on a badly swollen, pain radiating through her body with every step.
“When I got home I did an MRI scan and that is when it was discovered I had tore my ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament),” said Lowem, her head shaking.
A corrective surgery was done on October 20, 2017 to allow her begin the long road to recovery. Pain would become a constant companion in her life and it arrived in all forms; physical – when learning to walk without the help of crutches, psychological – when she thought about how long it would take her to returning to court and emotional – from being detached from her teammates.
“It was a very painful journey but having supportive friends and family made it easier. My sister Mary stayed with me for almost five months and helped me with almost everything in the house.
“My teammates and coaches also used to call me and encourage me which gave me a lot of hope,” said Lowem.
Meanwhile, her first born child, Phancie Chepchumba arrived on August 10, 2019, just two days after her 23rd birthday. Lowem, who is married to Kenya international volleyballer Silas Kipruto, says motherhood has accelerated her return to full fitness.
“My husband has been very supportive. I don’t think I’d have come this far without him by my side. Motherhood has also made me resilient because as a mother you go through a lot. The challenges I face as a player appear so small compared to what you go through in the process of raising a child. This has kept me going,” said Lowem with a smile.
Four months after the birth of her daughter, Lowem returned to training with Kenya Prisons in January last year.
However, she had to wait for a year to finally play after coronavirus scrapped off the 2020 season with only one leg of the national league played in Nyeri.
And she’s taken to the courts in breathtaking fashion this season having featured in all of Prisons’ four league matches so far. Although she has been used as back up to Joan Chelagat and Lorine Chebet, she is impressed by her progress.
“After my physiotherapy sessions at Nairobi Women’s hospital I would pass by here (Nairobi West Prisons) and watch the team train. I could see my teammates enjoying themselves and I had this burning desire to come back to the court,” revealed Lowem.
“This is a dream come true for me. Coming back to court and even playing in the league gives me hope that I’m on the right track. I think the competition in our position has also pushed me and I now want to reach an even higher level than I was before the injury,” she added.
A perfect opportunity to show a glimpse of her former self will arrive at the African Clubs Championship in Kelibia, Tunisia next week. With both Chebet and Chelagat in the national team’s bubble training camp for the Tokyo Olympics, Lowem is assured of a starting place in the continental tourney.
“My first trip out of the country with Prisons was in 2016 in Tunisia for this same competition so it’s a familiar place. We still have a very good team despite the absence of some senior players. I believe we have what it takes to at least reach the semi-final if not the final,” asserted Lowem, who was part of the Prisons team that finished third in 2017.
“I’m in good shape and this tournament will give me a good picture of where I am by playing against the best in the continent.”
Kenya Prisons technical director David Lung’aho, who will take charge of the team in the absence of Josp Barasa, said Lowem will be one of his key players in Tunisia.
“She is very young and ambitious. I’m happy that she has forced her way back because she is almost where she was (before the injury).
“She’s still got some fear which is natural for any player coming from injury but she remains one of the best players in her position in the country,” observed Lung’aho.
While the Tokyo Olympics due on July 23 to August 9 in Tokyo, Japan might have come too soon for Lowem, Lung’aho believes she will soon be knocking on the doors of the national team.
“She is a good blocker, can attack in any direction from the middle and has got great speed. She just needs to do more strength training to make her legs stronger which will eliminate the fear. At her best, Lowem is an asset not only for Prisons but also the national team,” said Lung’aho.
Four years after a career-threatening injury, there is light at the end of the tunnel for Lowem.