Dennis Ombachi: The rugby star who 'escaped' suicide through cooking

Dennis Ombachi

Dennis Ombachi during the TikTok Top Creator 2022 Awards at Mövenpick Residences in Nairobi on January 14, 2023.         

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Ombachi, who still considers himself an introvert despite boasting of 2.3m followers on Tik Tok, 1.3 million followers on his Instagram and 164,240 followers on X (formerly Twitter) found himself in what he described as dark place when he hanged his rugby boots
  • Not only did his urge to perfect his culinary artistry rescue him from depression but also led him to the love of his life...Svetlana Polikarpova
  • Ombachi, nicknamed the Roaming Chef, notes that Ramsay inspired him to change his approach in cooking after realizing that not the best recipes make someone a good cook or chef

Former Kenya Sevens rugby star, Dennis “Ghost Worker” Ombachi has become a big sensation as an online chef, but the speedy winger who called time on his career at the age of 32 reckons he owes the success he has attained in life to rugby, cooking and his family. In his own words, those three things have kept him going, enabling him to overcome the odds in life.

Ombachi’s tours around the world with Kenya Sevens rugby team introduced him to different cultures and cuisines, fuelling his interest in cooking, a hobby that would later rescue him from depression, bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts. 

His desire to improve his culinary art not only rescued him from depression, but it also led him to meeting the love of his life, Russian Svetlana Polikarpova.

Dennis Ombachi

Dennis Ombachi of Kenya (left) side steps Stephan Dippenaar of South Africa in a past Tokyo Sevens match. 

Photo credit: File | AFP

Ombachi, who still considers himself an introvert despite boasting 2.3 million followers on Tik Tok, 1.3 million followers on Instagram and 164,240 followers on X (formerly Twitter) found himself in “a dark place”  when he hanged his rugby boots.

A chain of events happened to Ombachi, who single-handedly took Kenya to the 2016 Rio Olympics Games with a thrilling last-minute try, when Covid-19 pandemic struck in 2020.  The pandemic halted his favourite sport and to make matters worse, Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) terminated contracts of players in all the national teams due to financial constraints.

“We were not able to fend for ourselves and that is when I started thinking about life beyond rugby. I was stuck with no other income away from rugby,” says Ombachi, who was expecting his first born son, Remy. 

“I thought I had been in rugby for close to a decade, yet I had nothing  to my name and I wasn’t growing younger. Covid-19 triggered a lot of questions in my mind even after KRU reinstated the contracts when Covid-19 subsided,” he says.

Dennis Ombachi

Kenya Shujaa player Dennis Ombachi scores a try against Mwamba Club during Group A of Safari 7s Rugby tournament on November 10, 2018 at RFUEA grounds.

Photo credit: File | Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

The father of two says it was easy for him to navigate through life when he was younger since what he got from rugby was enough to sustain himself as a young man without a family. 

“But now, the dynamics changed. I had a wife and an adorable son to take care of, yet what I was getting in rugby wasn’t enough to sustain us,” explains Ombachi, who took the tough decision of walking away from the game he loved while he could still play competitively.

The worst thing is that the former rugby player, who was now an influencer on social media, having started online cooking shows, didn’t have a clear plan on what to do in retirement.

“My wife pushed for the idea to hang my boots and we had a few fights here and there but in the end it happened since I was fighting a losing battle,” he says with a hearty laughter. “I was training with the national team but my mind wasn’t on the pitch.”

Rugby player Dennis Ombachi and his wife Svetlana Polikarpova

Rugby player Dennis Ombachi and his wife Svetlana Polikarpova during the Tiktok Top Creator 2022 Awards at Mövenpick Residences Nairobi on January 14, 2023. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

At this point, Polikarpova interjects with a telling laughter when asked if she influenced Ombachi to retire. 

“Ombachi is better placed to answer that,” she says. 

“Frankly, waking up at 5am and returning to the house at 2pm with no energy and stable income, I thought he needed to rest to explore other things. We also had a son together and he needed some love,” says Svetlana, adding that she was also worried that Ombachi would get an injury and, with Covid-19 at its peak, life would be tough, given that her parents were in another country.

“I quit rugby because I wanted to do something that will enable me to take care of myself and family,” Ombachi explained during the NTV’s Monday night sports show SportOn! hosted by Bernard Ndong and James Wokabi.

Ombachi was an influencer on Tik Tok, Facebook and Instagram owing to his status in rugby, and that took a different turn when he started the online cooking.

“I was scared of what the future held for me since I had all my life been surrounded by rugby, a game that surely has shaped what I am today. I walked, eat, slept and woke up rugby but here I was stuck and in a conundrum not knowing what to do,” says Ombachi, adding that it dawned on him that he had achieved nothing outside rugby yet those he graduated with from college had flourishing careers.

“Everything was dark for me. I had 100 percent sportsmanship skills but zero life skills. I was shy and poor in communication and I couldn’t even sell myself,” says Ombachi, who was battling bipolar disorder, having been diagnosed with the condition in 2018.  

Rugby player Dennis Ombachi when he received his award during the Tiktok Top Creator 2022 Awards

Rugby player Dennis Ombachi when he received his award during the Tiktok Top Creator 2022 Awards at Movenpick Hotel, Nairobi on January 14, 2023. 

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Bing one fascinated by different types of cuisines from the places he toured with Kenya Sevens team, Ombachi, who loves staying indoors, would try his hand in cooking with a bit of online display starting in 2016 before taking up the business seriously in 2020.

“I simply can’t separate rugby and cooking. Rugby exposed me to different cultures, which later improved my cooking. I would lock myself in my room and just mix ingredients and cook just to distract myself when I felt low,” says Ombachi. “I started slowly and 95 per cent of my meals were bad and it gave me the urge to perfect it.”

Ombachi would then explore the internet for different recipes from online chefs. The former Kenyan international drew inspiration from Gordon James Ramsay, a British celebrity chef, restaurateur, television presenter, and writer. 

“It gave me a sense of purpose. As much as I love rugby, cooking gave me a means of expressing myself and letting my emotions out. Cooking gave me my solitude, kept my mind focused and brought balance. It was a form of therapy.” 

Kenya Sevens player Dennis Ombachi

Kenya Sevens player Dennis Ombachi in action during the Safaricom sevens match against Spain at Nyayo National Stadium on September 30, 2015. 

Photo credit: File | Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

Ombachi, nicknamed “Roaming Chef”, notes that Ramsay inspired him to change his approach in cooking after realising that even the best recipes do not necessarily make someone a good cook or chef. 

“One has to understand the philosophy of cooking by going beyond the recipe and to invent new techniques and ingredients so as to interact well with food.

“If you stick to same recipes then it will be with you for the rest of your life and your meals won’t change for the better. That  resonates well with rugby which requires one to always change tactics,” says Ombachi, hinting that he is a self-made chef. 

Polikarpova, a professional marketer and project manager, first met Ombachi in 2015 at a function where the former rugby player was as an influencer.

“He had like 9,000 followers on his special media platform. His manager did a lot of talking while he just kept quiet,” Polikarpova, says, adding that they exchanged messages and she late discovered that Ombachi had liked all her social media stuff. The two did not meet again until after one year.

'Love of my life' 

They met again at a function, and they started communicate more,  and she opened up to him that she did not even have time to cook for herself. 

“He simply asked me if he could cook for me, and took the challenge. He prepared packed food for me for a whole week,” says Polikarpova, who was swept off by Ombachi’s gesture. “I told myself this is the man I need in my life.”

As a talent manager, Polikarpova says that she saw something special in Ombachi other than his rugby talent. 

“I didn’t get to watch him play rugby much but cooking was not just like a hobby for him, it’s something he didn’t take for granted,” Polikarpova explains.

“I realised that there was so much opportunities online after I understood what he was going through,” says Polikarpova, who helped Ombachi rediscover his soft skills. “He needed confidence and I was happy to give it to him since he was already charming with super good looks. He just needed to believe in himself,” says Polikarpova. 

“This is a person who rarely had his photos on social media and had to bring that out in his cooking.”

Ombachi reckons that staying authentic on his social media platforms rather than embracing the celebrity status has endeared him more to his followers. 

“I am talented and Svetlana is the driver now. It’s easier staying simple and connecting more with followers than faking what you can’t afford to sustain,” says Ombachi, who won the award for 2022 TikTok content creator in Sub-Saharan Africa at the TikTok Top Creators Awards.

Ombachi says he is ready to serve rugby at any level despite having hung his boots. 

“Rugby is in my DNA and I want to give back to the game if called upon,” says Ombachi, who competed for Kenya Sevens at the 2016 Summer Olympics and the 2013 Rugby World Cup Sevens.

Ombachi explains that fatherhood has made him have a different perspective of life. 

“It has made me less selfish knowing that I have a family to take care of. I no longer party or engage in drinking as I used to do,” says Ombachi.