When the women sitting volleyball team lifted the country’s flag high

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Rwanda women sitting volleyball team head coach Peter Karreman talking to his players during a game in Rio. / Courtesy

The National Paralympic Committee (NPC-Rwanda), the body that oversees sports for all athletes with physical disabilities had rather a disjointed calendar year in 2016 but one that would go down in history for different reasons.

In late 2015, Rwanda scooped two slots for 2016 Rio Paralympic Games in Brazil that took place from September 7-18.

Hermas Muvunyi qualified for both 400m and 1500m while the national women sitting volleyball team, in July 2015, qualified from the ParaVolley Africa Sitting Volleyball Championships as Africa’s sole representatives at the Summer Games.

Due to the historic achievements, NPC’s calendar was dominated with the preparations of both the women’s team and Muvunyi, for the world’s biggest sporting event for people with physical disabilities.

Saturday Sport looks at the road to Rio. How Muvunyi and women sitting volleyball team fared and what followed after the Paralympics.

Muvunyi

The year was not a memorable one for Rwanda’s most decorated Paralympian Muvunyi. After winning a gold medal in 2015 at All African Games in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, Muvunyi vowed to win a medal at the Paralympics and then would consider retiring from the sport.

To him, winning the Paralympic medal was all that was missing in his medal collections after missing out on one at the 2012 London Paralympics.

NPC did not organize a special training camp for Muvunyi, who was believed to be Rwanda’s best hope to win the second Paralympic medal after Jean de Dieu Nkundabera’s bronze in the Men’s 800m T46 at the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece.

The former World champion in Men 800m- T46 category relied on his individual trainings, however; he competed in two international competitions, which according to NPC, were aimed at giving him a taste of what to expect in Rio.

The first one was the annual Tunis International Meet that was held from March 24 to 26 in Tunisia’s capital where he won two medals, gold in 400m and bronze in 1500m, both in T46 category.

Later in July, Muvunyi again won gold in 1500m T46 category at the Berlin Open Grand Prix in Germany—this raised most Rwandan’s hopes for a Paralympic medal coming home.

Dreadful campaign in Rio

However, it never worked out for Muvunyi in Rio and soon after returning home, he announced his retirement, although he was open to a mind change, but only if NPC promised to change their way of doing things in terms of preparing athletes for future competitions.

Muvunyi finished fifth in 1500m T-46 clocking 4:05:19, a Personal Best before again finishing in fifth place in the 400m T-16 clocking 49 seconds and nine micro seconds, only to be informed after the race that he stepped outside his lane, an offence punishable by disqualification.

Muvunyi announces retirement

As he had earlier made it clear that he would hang up his running spikes after competing at Rio Paralympics, Muvunyi announced retirement but that he would only consider reversing his decision if there were fundamental changes to inspire Paralympic athletes in the country.

Three months after making this announcement, Muvunyi dramatically made a U-turn and revealed that he has changed his mind after extensive discussions with his family and personal advisers and he will begin training in January (this month).

For NPC, they were surprised by the athlete’s decision following what the federation president Celestin Nzeyimana called unfounded allegations hence tasking Muvunyi to offer a formal apology before he is allowed again to carry the country’s flag.

Women Sitting Volleyball team

Unlike Muvunyi, the women sitting volleyball team received maximum support to get ready for their historic debut.

In March, the team competed at the World Paravolley Intercontinental Cup that was staged in Hangzhou City in China attracting most of the countries that they would face in Rio. These were China, US, Brazil and Canada.

In July, the team again camped in Netherlands for 10 days and competed in the Dutch Paravolley tournament where they again had a chance to faceoff world giants like USA, Slovenia, Russia, Italy, China plus hosts Netherlands.

Poor show at Rio but future looks bright

It was not the result that the Rwandan team expected but one would still say it was a fairytale and memorable Paralympic Games debut for the tiny East African country.

With the heavy load of shouldering Africa’s hopes, Rwanda’s debut ended with a dismal record after losing four consecutive matches to finish bottom of the eight-team table.

The 2015 Africa Paravolley champions lost all their Group B games – against champions China in the opening game 3-0 (3-25, 25-8, 25-6), Iran 3-0 (10-25, 19-25, 18-25), and the US 3-0 (10-25, 8-25 and 3-25).

In the seventh-place play-off, the team lost to Canada 3-0 (21-25, 15-25 and 20-25), hence ending the competition without winning a single set.

Nonetheless, the players, coaches and NPC officials believe the future of Rwanda women sitting volleyball looks bright. In Rio, Rwanda was the youngest team in the competition.

The women sitting volleyball team was established in 2013 and three-years down the road, expecting a medal from them at the very highest level of competition, would be an overwhelming ambition.

China has won the Paralympic gold medal four consecutive times while USA has been the regular silver medalists.

Japan as the next hosts of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020, sent a crew of their national television to do a documentary on the Rwandan team so as to get a clue on how to organize their team.

This clearly shows how the world sees Rwanda as one of the upcoming nations in the sport.

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