When youngster Sandrine Nyirambarushimana said yes to her sitting volleyball calling seven years ago, nobody believed that one day she would be a continental icon.
Born and raised in Gicumbi District – North of the country, the 22-year-old has inspired Rwanda to three consecutive African championships – and was named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) on all the occasions.
Just last month, she helped the country to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games after edging Egypt in the final at Amahoro Indoor Stadium, in Kigali.
A secondary school graduate from GS APAPEB, Nyirambarushimana currently features for Bugesera in the national sitting volleyball league.
This week, the sitting volleyball star talked to Saturday Sport’s Lavie Mutanganshuro about her career and her phenomenal rise to the top of the game on the continent.
When and how did you find yourself in sitting volleyball?
I got to know about sitting volleyball for the first time in 2010. I could see – and at times watch – Gicumbi sitting volleyball team training. Many people tried to convince me to give it a shot but honestly I did not think I was interested.
Nyirambarushimana is seen here receiving her MVP award after the 2019 African Sitting Volleyball Championships in Kigali last month. Courtesy.
After several and consistent attempts from everybody around me, I finally agreed to try the sport in 2012 and immediately fell in love with it. Being young and open to learning helped me a lot. And, just after one year, I received my first call-up in the national team.
Did you face any challenges on your way up?
I usually say that I was my own challenge. No one ever discouraged me; I was the one letting myself down that I can’t play while sitting… (Laughter). And, by then, our grounds were outdoor where everyone was seeing. So I used to be shy and wasn’t proud of the game at first.
Nyirambarushimana during the interview at our offices this week. Emmanuel Kwizera.
But soon as I started playing, I enjoyed it and found most of my fears baseless.
It has been seven years since you embarked on your sitting volleyball career, what is your most memorable game to date?
I will never forget is the African Championships final against Egypt in 2015. It was a very close game, and at some point Egypt looked to be in command. But we fought very hard and managed to win in the decisive fifth set.
At the end of the game, every player on the team broke into tears… of joy. It was very tight, and we were all happy that we qualified to represent the country and continent to the 2016 Paralympic Games. That victory was an unbelievable feeling.
Who do you look up to?
As far as sitting volleyball is concerned, Emile Cadet Vuningabo is my role model. I have always admired how he uses his mind while playing. His talent is exceptional.
You have won the Most Valuable Player (MVP) accolade of the African championships three times in a row, do you mind sharing your secret behind the success?
There is no particular secret. High morale and team work do the magic.
Every time I step on the court, be it in training or competitions, I make sure I give it my best and also try to keep my teammates motivated. I never allow myself and my teammates to lose hope, even when results are terribly running low.
Besides trophies, what other achievement are you proud about the most?
With sitting volleyball, I have achieved a lot. Among them, I was able to pay for myself throughout my secondary school studies. I will soon be enrolling to university and I am sure I won’t need to rely on anyone.
Where do you want to reach by your retirement time?
I want to become a player that every team would wish to have, but, most importantly, I want to be a role model to young girls with disabilities and inspire them to join the game.
Any advice to people with disabilities?
My advice to people with disabilities, especially in Rwanda, is to be open-minded and never limit themselves because we have a country where disabled people are given a say and opportunities as any other person.
I also encourage them to approach and talk to people with disabilities who have achieved what they aspire to achieve. It helps to bring down the isolation and stigma that we are faced with every day. Personally it helped me a lot.
How are you preparing for next year’s Paralympic Games in Tokyo?
We have not begun training yet but we will fly to Japan for training next month. The camp in Japan will absolutely level-up our skills and preparedness. We will be looking to perform better than we did at the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil.
Read the full story: Sandrine Nyirambarushimana: The making of a volleyball champion