With six National League titles, Nemostars’ setter Smith Okumu says that he still has a few more years to play, the hunger is still there.
Okumu was born on November 29, 1991 in Mbale Hospital and his childhood was “normadic and fun” as he used to move around the country because of his mother Christine Olanya’s work commitments.
Growing up, he attended Nabuyonga and Grace Primary School in Mbale before moving to Lugazi Mixed for his Secondary.
He started playing Volleyball and get actively into Sports while in Primary Five, and his talent, just like his Dad Tobias Olanya who was a great Sprinter, was easy to recognise because of some standout performances.
“I drifted off Volleyball to football going into Secondary life and I was quite good at football,” Okumu reflects. “I even captained the football team in my later stages.”
His biggest turning point arrived while he was in Senior four when the school’s best Setter changed school.
“The team had no setter and coach Jeff Iwalanda saw me playing on the court side with my friends and recognized how good my touch was,” Okumu says.
“He took away my soccer boots and gave me snickers, I never looked back from there.”
Okumu’s journey to Nemostars was started around 2007, two years after the club had just been formed.
He remembers: “It was in 2007, it’s Ben Oyat who introduced me to old coach Neko Muduse Ojala at one of the visitation days.”
Okumu says that Ojala encouraged him to join the team but he was reluctant since his coach Jeff Lwalanda, who was a KCCA player, wanted him to play for KCCA. He trained for KCCA twice, and later decided to quit because he felt he was never appreciated.
During the 2010 Makerere Open, Okumu went to watch the tourney as a fan, then Oyat reintroduced him to coach Ojala who ordered him to come to training on Monday.
“I was part of the rebuilding process since Nemostars had lost a number of players, I have never played for another club before and since then,” Okumu adds.
“The first active days were fun, we were actually almost all rookies. George (Aporu, teammate) had played a few years but he was such a nice guy and being around him is so easy.”
Okumu started to improve as a player and he was handed the responsibility to run plays as the main setter.
He comments: “We didn’t play to win because teams back then were much better and more experienced, we played to improve and one day at a time our dreams of ruling volleyball in Uganda started becoming a reality.”
Okumu was pivotal as Nemostars strolled to their first National Volleyball League title in 2012, helping the side beat Nkumba 3-1 in the final playoffs series. Then, Nemostars was under coach Anthony Ndawula.
And the following year, Okumu’s Nemo became the first men’s club to represent Uganda at the Africa Volleyball Men’s Club Championship, they went on to finish 11th out of 18 clubs, on their first attempt.
“I have very many highlights and they can’t stop if you are still in the game but of course the first league trophy was so emotional, and then going to Libya for our first continental engagement,” Okumu speaks about his first achievements.
In 2013 still, Okumu helped Nemo win their first National Championship, against then 13-time winners KAVC.
With his side trailing despite winning the first set, Okumu’s frustration and hunger to win saw him kick the ball in the stands.
The infamous decision cost his team a point but they fought back and regained control down the stretch before clinching the title at Lugogo, a game that was initially set to be played in Mbale.
The victory helped his side secure a second straight ticket to the Continent.
Fast forward, Okumu and Nemo have also won the 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019 league titles.
Last year, his input was commendable as Nemostars emerged sixth, best ever finish for a Ugandan team on the Continent despite all the financial struggles they encountered.
He was the USPA player of the year 2018, has played for the National team since 2013 and has swept almost all local open championships.
“Winning the uspa award was also a great achievement but 2019 had some very fond memories, Nemostars being 6th on the continent and beating Rwanda in zone 5 at kasarani standout,” Okumu ranks some of his best achievements.
On his best game, he reveals: “I think the game was in Kumi in 2013 against sky volleyball club; They had international player yakan Lawrence who plays in Japan but we beat them. We gave it all.”
His worst memory is losing to APR in the Genocide Memorial tournament in 2015.
Okumu is also a two-time national volleyball champion and has won the Aporu Okol championship three times.
On what the future holds, he reveals: “I still have a few more years to play then maybe go into some coaching to help young setters. But family and making money are also plans to be achieved.”
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