• The 15-year-old plays power-forward for Victory Christian Centre School at North Carolina, USA
• She hopes to be the first Kenyan drafted into the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA)
She had been struggling with her height for years, was given nicknames and made fun of at school before she found solace in basketball.
A year later, she was selected to attend a basketball camp that landed her a fully funded scholarship to the United States. Currently, Ruth Waithera, 15, plays power forward/ centre for Victory Christian Centre School in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Before she left, she had been enrolled at Buruburu Girls’ Secondary School in 2017.
“I started playing basketball in high school (form two) last year. I had previously never played the sport, but my height worked to my advantage and I got into the team,” she said. “It was great because slowly it helped me accept and embrace my height.”
Currently 6’3, Waithera was quickly absorbed into the school team and started playing in matches. Her parents also liaised with coaches outside the school so she could get practice sessions when school was closed.
It was during one of those matches against NIBS college where she was selected alongside six other girls by coaches Julius Otieno and Moses Musosi to attend the Giants of Africa camp at Brookside School.
“We were trained for a week by coaches from in and out of the country, and at the end of the camp, I was lucky to be selected among the 24 players who would play in the final match of the camp, called All-Stars,” she said.
Apart from training, the coaches from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Cameroon and the United States were also scouting for talent.
“After the game, a coach from the United States approached me and asked if I wanted an opportunity to study and play basketball there, and I said yes,” she said.
A year later, the teenager hopes to be the first Kenyan drafted for the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) after finishing college.
“Before, I played basketball as just another high school game, with no hopes of going pro. The farthest I saw my career going was playing for the national team,” she said. “Now, I want to advance to college basketball before hopefully being drafted for WNBA.”
Compared to Kenya, Waithera says the level of competition is higher in the US and athletes are encouraged to be all-rounded.
“They focus more on developing your skillset so that an average athlete plays all games or as many as they can,” she said. “We are also taught IQ of the game so we have the expertise to analyse the game and know the right moves to make.”
Sports are also used as an incentive for college.
“There are college coaches in matches who are scouting for talent and I’m hoping to continue with basketball as a career, so that keeps me very motivated,” she said.
To add to her college credits, she now plays track and field and volleyball.
“We have a weight room (gym) where we develop our physical strength and we also have a very efficient indoor basketball court,” she said.
“At the end of each game, we watch the match and analyse it, correct mistakes we made and see where we can improve.”
So far, Waithera has played in the State Championship competitions, where her school emerged second overall. She is a big supporter of the Golden State Warriors and looks up to Candice Parker from the Los Angeles Sparks.
“My favourite NBA player is Kevin Durant. I think he is the best player in the world, but I’m a little disappointed that he was signed to the Brooklyn Nets,” she said.
The teen expressed interest in playing for the Kenyan team one day, and she also wants to start an organisation to train young children in basketball.
“In the US, children are inducted into sports at a very young age, and they get to master the skill. I also want to advocate for more government and parental support because sports can also make you successful,” she said.
When she left for the States in October 2018, she had just celebrated her 15th birthday.
“I went during the winter and it was very difficult to adjust at first. There is also the issue of culture shock because life is very different from what I was used to,” she said.
Waithera had been accompanied by her father, who stayed with her for a month before returning home.
“After he left, the homesickness really hit me and I would call home every day because I missed my sisters, friends and parents. It’s still hard,” she said. “The food there, mostly junk, also really made me miss my mum’s cooking. “
Fitting in and language barrier are other things she had to overcome in her quest to reach the WNBA. She says she is lucky to have been admitted to a Christian school because it made it a little easier to blend with the students.
“I used basketball to relate to people and had to learn how to talk like them so we could understand each other without all the repetition. I also used academics to make friends,” she said.
Waithera is an A student and she uses her knowledge to help some of her schoolmates. “The subject I find most challenging is English. You’d be surprised how hard grammar is,” she said.