In Italy, volleyball player Paola Egonu is a household name; at just 22 she carried the Olympic Flag at the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony and holds the women’s world record for spike speed.
In an interview with Al Jazeera’s Generation Sport, the 24-year-old revealed the challenges she faced as the daughter of immigrants in Italy, and the reasons she decided to step back from the Italian national team in 2022.
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Born in Italy to Nigerian parents, Egonu only received Italian citizenship at the age of fourteen.
“I was grateful for what I had in Italy growing up … but I feel that there are some little things that I would love to change for my own children,” Egonu said.
Aiming to provide a voice for her community, and to show that she understands what some children from minority backgrounds go through, Egonu opened up to host Iman Amrani about a racist incident she experienced in kindergarten.
“I remember I had to go to the toilet so I went to my teacher and I was like ‘hey teacher, I need to go to the toilet’, and she was like ‘no, you can’t’ and I repeated this three times, and then I couldn’t keep it any more,” she recalled.
“And in that moment the teacher came and laughed at me, and said ‘oh my god, you smell so bad, Black people smell.'”
Returning home, Egonu’s mother told her: “You always need to be the best, always clean, behave well, the way you talk, you need to be perfect, because they are going to come at you.”
As one of the world’s best volleyball players, Egonu decided to take a break from the Italian national team in 2022, after a racist backlash on social media following Italy’s defeat to Brazil in the World Championship semi-finals.
“Reading those things and hearing them made me doubt myself more. And the worst one was, ‘Is she Italian?’ I was devastated,” Egonu said.
After Italy won the bronze medal by beating the US, Egonu broke down while talking to her agent in a video that went viral on social media.
“They didn’t understand that in that moment I wasn’t an athlete, I was a girl that was hurt, that was tired, and that was crying,” she said.
“They saw it as I was just being spoiled, and I was just acting up. I just wanted attention. And that’s what hurt me the most because, yes, I’m an athlete, yes, I’m strong, but I’m a person and I have my own emotions.”
Determined to put this behind her, Egonu moved to Turkey and helped secure the CEV Champions League trophy for her club, VakifBank.
“I won’t allow anyone that doesn’t know how it is to wake up every day and fight for something you truly believe to take that dream away from me,” Egonu said.
In addition to sport, Paola Egonu has collaborated with Emporio Armani and recently co-hosted the Sanremo Music Festival.
“I love to dance, I love fashion, I love getting to know people that love to dream big,” Egonu said, looking to the future. “I love to stay inspired.”
Generation Sport with Paola Egonu, presented by Iman Amrani, was first broadcast on October 1, 2023 on Al Jazeera English.
Source: Al Jazeera