THE STRONG 18!

My guest for today is a very dear friend of mine and one of the MVP’s of the Women’s Volleyball Champions League Final Four tournament that took place a month ago in Bucharest. She won the Romanian championship with Metal Galati and with Volei Alba Blaj for several times, she won the championship in Germany and Switzerland. She is an important player for the Romanian national team and she played in the Champions League final. But most of all she is a true friend, a very positive person and great player. I am proud to present to you, my friend and one of my favourite volleyball players in the world, Nneka Onyejekwe.

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Nneka, welcome on www.vladpop.com and thank you for accepting to answer my questions. We know each other for many, many year, you know you are one of my favorite players and so, today’s interview is very easy for me as I am talking with a very dear friend. I won’t drag this anymore and I’ll get to it: what does volleyball means for you?

Besides being my job, volleyball is my first true love, it is passion and happiness. Volleyball is what helped me in becoming who I am today: a strong and independent woman.

As most of the great athletes, at one moment during your career you had the chance that one or many trainers focused especially on your developement, seeing you as a very promising and talented player. Who are these coaches and what would you like to say tot hem now?

Ufff, I worked with many coaches so far. The first volleyball lessons I took were with Honorina Borojni (helped by Doina Muresan) and then I was “given” to Zoran Terzic (assisted by Bogdan Paul at that time) that took me to a brand new level. I had Darko as a coach in national team when I was 19-20 years old, if I am not mistaken, and several years later I started to work with him again, in Volei Alba Blaj. One thing is certain though: each and every single coach I had helped me develop into the player and person I am today. I learned a lot from everyone and I tried to take all the positives from them.I would like to thank them for the trust they invested in me. For me, this is all what counts.

People who are not involved in professional sports tend to belive that the life of a professional athlete is extremely cool: good money, road trips, a lot of benefits, fame. How is it seen from the inside?

Being a professional athlete is not easy and unfortunately a very few know what world-class professional sports really mean, besides the good money, fame, the “perfect” life and various countries where you play and you get to see only the airport, the gym and the hotel. I believe that only the family and the close friends know what this professional athlete business means. Sometimes perfect beautiful but sometimes so very hard. Being an athlete means, first of all, making sacrifices. You miss so many important steps in your life but also in the lives of your dear ones because you are sometimes hundreds of kilometres far from home, you have two training sessions each day, one or two matches each week and hotel rooms. Oh, and there is also the national team and so, there goes the holiday you’ve imagined and dreamt of for an entire season. Sports also mean pain. I’ve heard it so many times: “you are extremely healthy as you are an athlete”. Not many know that there are nights when you can barely sleep because your knee hurts, or your shoulder hurts or is it your back? And let’s pretend you can fall asleep somehow, the problem is that you eventually have to get out of bed (at least for me this is a problem) J. As a professional athlete you have to grow into an adult faster than all the other kids/teenagers of your age. Sports mean responsibility but it also means satisfaction. Playing volleyball I met a lot of great persons from whom I learned a lot and I have also made a lot of great friends.

So, when you draw the line, professional sport brings tears to your eyes, most of them tears of joy, at least in my case.

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I was lucky enough to see you play a national championship final even since you were at a junior level, in Galati, together with your good friend Sabina Miclea. I have noticed that your friendship with her is still strong. How can you keep such a connection between the two of you, seeing that in the past years the paths of your careers separated you quite much?

I know Sabina since my first volleyball day and we became friends later, I was already in Galati and she was still playing in Cluj. As in any other relationship, friendships have ups and downs but it is important to communicate and we managed that and so, seventeen years later we talk on the phone for hours during the season or hanging out for a coffee when we have holiday and we’re both at home. We do that in order to catch up with every story and not to miss a single fact. Hopefully my kids and hers will get along as great as we do :)))

You are a true globe-trotter. Your career took you so far across Europe to Germany, France, Switzerland. Which are the differences between a club like, let’s say Volero Zurich and Volei Alba Blaj?

I don’t think you can compare the two clubs. And we start talking about budgets again. A very good thing is that the level of Romanian sport is on a rise and that is expressed by the European results Romanian teams had lately. In many sports, not just volleyball. Baby steps but strong steps. There is progress but there is room for more. In professional sports money is very important and I am not talking about players’ contracts or staff’s contracts, I am talking about all the other facilities, the medical facilities to recover after each training session or each match… There is also a sports hall to play in and to train in, a sports hall where you can play important European competitions. In Blaj they are building a sports centre that many teams in Romania only dream of. It is a very important project and I am glad that the people of Blaj will be able to support their team in European matches in Blaj and not in Sibiu anymore.

How was you life being the only Romanian player at a club in western Europe? How did you manage to settle?

The first year was tough on me. New beginnings are always difficult but I got used to it and made a lot of friends in all the countries and places I played in.

You know this blog also has a musical component. So, a couple of musical questions will follow. What songs never miss from you phone’s playlist?

Oooooo, I have many, many songs saved in my phone and many songs that I love. Some of them are:

Queen Bohemian Rhapsody / Metallica- Nothing else matters / Guns n Roses- Don’t cry / Bon Jovi- Always / Beyonce- Halo / Alicia Keys- Empire state of mind / Pink- Family portrait / Sia Unstoppable / Robbie Williams- Angels and the list goes on but I will stop here for the moment.

Is there a favorite song for the pre-matches warm-up moments? Something to boost your energy up?

I have a lot of favourite songs and it highly depends on the mood I am in before a match. I listen to almost everything, from rock to Romanian rap.

What do you listen after the victories? I know that the previous season, your locker room vibrated with Sia’s „Cheap thrills”.

It depends who gets to the speaker first. Usually the one that connects first to the speaker asks the other if they have any special requests.

I know this is a delicate subject and I am ok if you decline to answer the question: where will you play next season? Will you stay in Blaj or we’ll be seeing you playing somewhere else?

I haven’t decided yet where I will play next season. I have a few offers and I want to think it over very well before taking a decision. It is always difficult to make this sort of decisions and I am the kind of person who analyses and chew on a decision for a long time in order to be sure that it is the right decision but an important component is my feeling. There is no bad decision for me and nothing is random. When I will have a decision I will let you know.

I know that for you, family always comes first and I also know that inside your family you have a very strong and special connection between you. How does such a strong and united family cope with the distances between you?

We’ve got used with the distance after all these years. The phones help us keep in touch and we’re very aware of everything that happens in all our lives. It is kind of hard for us to be all together in the same time and we see each other in turns. It is not easy to do family reunions when you have two professional athletes in the family but we’ve managed so far and I know we’ll manage from now on too.

Even though we’ve come a long way, Romania still has some issues when it comes to racial tolerance. I suspect that because of your skin colour and because of your „vintage” Romanian name, you had some problems through the years. Did all the rubbish from people who were not able to see beyond the name and skin colour made you stronger?

When you are a child it feels painful but once you grow up you’re not letting them get to you anymore. I am born in Romania and I am proud that I am part of an interracial family. Only the opinion of those who know me matters to me, they know what kind of person I am and I love them. The only person to whom I must prove every day who I am and what I can be it’s me!

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I must admit that every time I watch a match in which you are involved, I am eagerly looking forward to the event’s announcer moment when he has to pronounce your name. Which is the funniest pronunciation you ever heard?

I don’t quite remember but there, in the heat of the moment I amuse my self every time when they get it wrong. Usually, the announcer asks me before the match how should he pronounce it. I heard: “Oneche, Oneueche”. :))))))

Your favourite volleyball player?

Maja Ognjenovic

Your favourite volleyball drill?

Surprisingly for a middle blocker: defence… But I also like to pass the ball and I would have liked to be a setter.

The volleyball drill you need to work on?

I have to work in every aspect of my play. There is always room for improvement.

Your favourite coach?

Hard question. I’ll tell you when we’ll meet next time for a cup of coffee :))

The team you would like to play for one day?

Hmmmm, I haven’t thought of one in particular. I would love to play for one of the top three teams in Italy or Turkey. The level of the championship and the team spirit counts more than the name of the team.

How can you picture yourself when you’re done playing volleyball?

This is the kind of question I’ve been asking myself for quite some time now. I still haven’t found an answer. When I will find it I will let you know. For now I still picture myself on the court playing volleyball.

Favourite free time activities?

I like to listen to music, to read, sometimes to watch a movie but most of the times it is difficult to choose one :)). In my spare time I talk to my family and friends.

A message for your fans?

Kisses and a big THANK YOU!

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