Friday, November 18, 2016

Eritrean-American Golfer Robel Woldegabriel: Overcoming barriers for a bigger cause.

When Robel Woldegabriel chose to accept a scholarship to Virginia Union University in Richmond, VA he made a conscious choice. Robel had offers from many other schools while in high school, but decided to accept his scholarship from an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) school where his chances of getting more opportunities to succeed would be higher. He also wanted to give back and thank a minority youth program that helps educate minority youth in a mostly wealthy and race conscious sport. While Tiger Woods has done wonders for black golfers the pioneers of golf had to go through so much hate in order to get more blacks and minorities to play the sport. Golf, with its wealthy, country-club mentality, is one of the last bastions of racism in sports.

Born in Eritrea Robel came to the USA at a young age and settled in Orlando, Florida where the setting and atmosphere for golf was excellent. It also helped that one of the greatest golfers ever Tiger Woods lived there. Eri-International sports had an opportunity to speak with Robel Woldegabriel at length about how he got into this sport and his current success at the collegiate level. He recently won a tournament helping his school get first place in the 2nd Annual VUU Fall Invitational. There was a two-hole play-off to determine the top three medalist for the tournament and 1st place Medal went to Robel Woldegabriel. According to his coach, "The team showed a lot of patience and control to post the kind of round they did," said VUU Head Golf Coach E. Lee Coble. "Again, I am very proud of the way the team stepped up to once again shoot a 5 over par round of 293."

                       Robel Standing second from the left (looking at the picture on your screen)

Meanwhile, Virginia Union University's golf team, winner of its last two tournaments and the highest Division II finisher at the HBCU Challenge, is currently ranked 44th in the nation statistically by GolfStat. The Panthers are averaging a score of 74.5 through the first three tournaments, the highest such score in recent memory for the program. The Panthers finished third overall in the HBCU Challenge and Eritrean golfer Robel Woldegabriel has a lot to do with it.  Follow Robel's interview with Eri-International sports and encourage other Eritrean youth to take up this mentally tough sport that can also be a relaxing activity for the mind and soul. Robel talks to us about possibly representing Eritrea and his passion for the Eritrean flag runs deep as Eri-International sports spent a lengthy amount of time during last year's UCI Cycling championships that took place in Richmond, VA. Here is the interview in its entirety. Thank you Robel for giving us your time.

1. First could you be kind enough to introduce yourself to us?

·        I am Robel Woldagbriel and I am 21 years old. I was born in Asmera, Eritrea and I moved to the U.S. with my family when I was 12 years old. Now my family stays in Orlando, FL and I go to school at Virginia Union University and member of the Golf Team.

2. What made you decide to participate in a sport that is not common among black folks even more Eritreans?

·       First of all I never had any expectations to play this game especially coming from back home, but this game is very unique and because it’s an individual sport and requires mental strength I wanted to give it a try. My high school coach was the one that introduced me to golf and I told her I didn’t like golf and that it was a boring sport at first. I then went to visit my neighbor’s house whose name was Paulson to ask him about his thoughts on this game and how I can try to get involved. He knew how much I loved soccer so he told me a story about a guy who moved from Nigeria to U.S. and wanted to play soccer but couldn’t. He started to play basketball and made it to NBA. That helped me to open my mind and try something new and I thought that it would be a good opportunity. Since then I have fallen in love with the game of Golf.  My high school helped me to join a program called the (OMYGA) Orlando Minority Youth Golf Association and this program has helped me to become a college athlete and still helps me to become a better golfer.  

3. You got a scholarship to college and what makes it even more unique is that it is an HBCU school, why did you pick Virginia Union University to continue your career?

·      When I graduated high school, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of coaches from many universities and the coach from Virginia Union was among them. I was impressed by how they communicated with me and I really liked the entire coaching staff from the get go. They always were there to help you get better as long as you put the effort in. I also wanted to experience something new outside of Florida for a change. 

3. Growing up in Orlando, Florida, did you want to pursue other sports?

·      Yes I have always wanted to play soccer especially growing up in Eritrea but I moved to the U.S.A at a young age and I realized that soccer isn’t as popular as other sports even though I had a passion for it. I even had the opportunity to play soccer in middle school and high school, but I didn’t see a lot of future with soccer for myself and so I decide to give it a chance with golf.

4. What are your future plans in helping to grow the sport among minorities but even more in the attempt to get more Eritreans to play this unique sport?

·      This is a very unique type of game. It’s not like other sports where you can just go out and play anywhere. To play this game, it requires a lot of time, dedication and effort. I would love to see young Eritrean kids give it a try even though it’s not popular among the Eritrean communities just yet. I think that’s what makes it hard for Eritreans to pick up the sport.  I would like to share my skills and knowledge and help develop the sport among Eritreans. My future plan is to set an example for those kids out there who would like to try this sport. I want to educate them that it’s possible to play whatever you want as long as you put the effort into it. I know it may sound impossible but I would like to see Golf as part of Eritrean events, & Festivals everywhere including in Eritrea. It only requires two people to start a tournament and I am sure that once people understand it they will be very interested in it.

5. Most people say this is a rich person’s sport, however if people try it anyone can play, what avenues are out there that you are aware of that can help young people pursue the sport?

·      To me it doesn’t make sense when people assume that it’s just a rich person’s sport. Even though it is costly there are ways in which the sport has become affordable these days. Yes, I understand that it’s not the type of sport where you can go anywhere outside to play as you will need a golf course but nowadays there are a lot of communities with golf courses willing to involve kids in this game and people just need to give it a chance even though it’s a very difficult game to play. However, there are lots of programs especially for minorities that want to get involved. The amount of minorities playing the sport is very low and opportunities for minorities are available in a lot of places.

6. Can you talk a little bit about the technical aspects of the game from your own perspective?

·      Well this game is a very interesting game. I would like to emphasize that it is mentally 90% while the physical aspects of it are low. This game requires a lot of patience and practice, because it takes about 4 to 5 hours to finish an 18 hole round. Because it is a mental game, it’s very important to stay away from negative thoughts while playing it. You must focus on the golf game at that moment at 100% to have a good chance of doing well.

7. You have mentioned to me in discussions that there is a possibility that you may be able to represent the Eritrean national team, why?

·      When I was in high school, I made a lot of positive accomplishment with this game. I also happen to have a lot of supporters as I picked up the game really quick. During high school, while I was in the 11th grade, I was told there is a good chance I could play at a college level. That gave me hope to work harder and I was able to make a huge improvement in my game. Once I got to my senior year I won all my regular season tournaments and become player of the year at the OMYGA program, and at that time the PGA (Professional Golf Association) were discussing bringing golf back to the Olympics and my coaches and mentor told me you should think about representing  your country one day. I have always wanted to become a professional golfer but most importantly I would like to represent my country of Eritrea.

8. Can you speak about college life and your academics and the importance of school when pursuing athletics?

·      Being a student-Athlete is not an easy task, but at the same time it’s a worthwhile challenge if you could balance both academics and athletics at the same time. When I moved here from Eritrea, my main goal was to get a good education and have a better career opportunity for the future. I never thought I would play golf but education helped me in many ways to develop this game. For example I have a golf scholarship and an academic scholarship and if I fail to manage one of them I could lose the scholarship so they both depend on each other. It is important to be a good student and at the same time to be a competitive athlete.

9. You seem to be proud of Eritrea and as a golfer, many people can also be proud of your accomplishments, how do you plan to transfer the golf knowledge to other Eritreans?

·      Yes when you are aware of where you come from, it can give you a sense of pride. I plan on sharing my knowledge and skills with others who may be interested. I love golf and I hope to see it grow among Eritreans.

10. If there is anything else you would like to share with us please feel. Thank you!

           Thank you to Eri-International sports Blog for giving me this opportunity to   share my experiences and knowledge on the sport of Golf.

For Eri-International Sports

Mike Seium

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Alexander Isak: The wonder kid with an Eritrean connection.

With time flying by and the conclusion of the 2016 Swedish premier league season, the big buzz in Europe these days is where the whiz kid born to Eritrean parents will end up transitioning into the next phase of his career. In order to understand the importance of his story, let us pause for a second and find out more about this new and young phenomena known as Alexander Isak. 

It should be recalled that just a couple of weeks ago another up and coming Eritrean athlete surprised the world as the youngest New York City Marathon champion in the history of the event. While this event has been around for a long time, the amazing accomplishment by Girmay Ghebreslassie put Eritrea on the spotlight as he did in Beijing after winning the IAAF marathon. How can anyone forget the success that Daniel Teklehaimanot had when participating and winning a stage at the Tour De France. Add to that the world record holder and only Olympic medal holder for Eritrea, Zeresenay Tadesse's amazing career in the half marathon as well as the 2015 player of the year award in Sweden by Eritrean national soccer team and current San Jose Earthquakes star Henok Goitom. As we speak today Cyclists, runners, soccer players and sporadically other athletes with Eritrean roots in different sports are starting to flourish at an amazing rate. Each time Eritrea's martyrs turn in their graves, they are looking back at the sacrifices made for this generation that is starting to make progress at the world stage where Eritrea has always belonged. What are chances of a teenager from any nationality being sought after by 90 soccer clubs at one soccer game? Then more teams showed up about 120 of them sending their scouts to look at this ERITREAN youngster who has taken the soccer world by storm. Those martyrs are really talking and saying that we are just now starting to expose the power that is ERITREA!  

Getting to know Alexander Isak.
Alexander was born in Solna a suburb of Stockholm City in 1999 in the same place where another great Eritrean Henok Goitom was born in. Alexander has been with AIK since the age of six and has risen through the ranks, training with the senior squad for the first-time two years ago. While Sweden provided him with many opportunities to be good, the work ethics came from his Eritrean roots. It is important to note that with his parents and the strong Eritrean community in Sweden as a support system he picked up a lot of the positive attitudes by witnessing the good moral values of the Eritrean culture. One of his coaches between the ages of 9-13 was also an Eritrean whose great contributions to AIK Stockholm has paid dividends. We spoke to coach Nahom Ghidey who always knew that Alexander had the potential to become something big. In such a short period of time within his first professional contract since May of this year, he has scored 11 times including some game winning goals for AIK. 

The Drive, the work ethic, the maturity: The Eritrean way.

Every athlete has an inspiration and some body that they look up to and Alexander is no different. He mentions in interviews that he looks up to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whom the blogger had the pleasure of spending two weeks when the legend signed a contract with PSG in 2012. Witnessing him first hand during training periods at Princeton University in New Jersey and getting to interview Ibrahimovic, there is no doubt that he will go down as one of the best soccer players in the world. So like most young people and players around the world Alexander's choice as one of his role models is not a bad one considering that he is being compared to Zlatan by many. However, his real role model is 32-year-old Henok Goitom, of the San Jose Earthquakes who shares the Eritrean roots with him. The families of both players are friends and Henok has been more than impressed with his young protege that seems to be doing wonders at a very young age. 

Eri-International sports blog would like to strongly emphasize that the reason this blog was established more than 9 years ago was to inspire and share stories that can benefit the Eritrean-diaspora community as well as anyone who is inspired by the athletic prowess of Eritrean and African origin athletes. A Nigerian team mate of Alexander Isak who won an Olympic medal describes him as "Thoughtful" when talking about the maturity level of Alexander. During a question and answer session with Swedish Media AIK team mate Chinedu Obasi who has also been playing incredibly well said this of Alexander based on his achievements on and off the field.

“His performance is like boxing in the ring. All predictions are based on performances in the ring, and Alexander’s accomplishments on the field speak for themselves,” Obasi told Swedish newspaper Expressen after the Djurgardens game - the same day as Isak’s 17th birthday. He went on to add, “Moreover, he is a nice person. I hope he continues to keep his cool and fight on. Then he can go far,” the Nigerian international and Olympic bronze medalist added.

Considering that Eritrea is only 25 years old the combination of diaspora kids and Eritrean youth seem to be doing wonders in the international sports arena. Sports or Athletics in general is a good way to make yourself a better person and Eri-International sports will document many more future athletes while also looking back at previous Eritreans who have inspired many but whose stories have not been told to the masses. Alexander Isak is a reincarnation of some of the great Eritrean soccer players who were way ahead of their time but because of the political situation within the horn of Africa, their abilities and skills were never noticed on the international scene. Some even decided to forego their careers to make sure Eritrea became INDEPENDENT! and paid with their lives.

Where will Alexander Isak end up? 

With so many teams looking at Alexander at the moment it is going to be tough to predict which team will have him. The one main factor is who is willing to forge up the 
14-16 million British pounds that his current team AIK is asking for. This price will be the highest paid for any player in the history of Swedish Soccer, add to that the fact that he was the youngest player to ever score in the Swedish premier league and history has already been made. The Eritrean humbleness in him can be seen each time he is all over the media on and off the field. Isak is well aware of the interest in his services that has been bubbling away for months, although his commitment right now seems to be with AIK and not a European giant until 2018. For soccer fans all over the world whichever team he plays for he is destined to be the next big star. At the moment the teams that are really putting up big fights to acquire his services are Paris St. Germain, Liverpool, Manchester United, Napoli, Juventus, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Real Madrid, Barcelona based on some of the latest news we have been following. However, it is very difficult to figure out where he will end up. Negotiations have been on going and AIK Stockholm will be milking the price as far as they can go. The recently turned 17 year-old is the talk of the soccer world. Even Zlatan Ibrahimovic whom he is compared to has been known to follow his games and has been advocating for his teams (Juventus, Paris St. Germain, Ajax & now Manchester United) to grab him at any cost. For example, according to Italian media, Qatari Nasser Al-Khelafi owner of PSG has offered 10 million pounds for his transfer but that amount was short of the amount that his Swedish club want even though it would surpass the most amount of money spent for Ibrahimovic's transfer when he was traded from Malmo during his heyday in Sweden. AIK will not settle down for any lower than between 15 & 16 million pounds to even initiate any negotiations while Liverpool have submitted a contract for Alexander which also has been compared to some of the biggest transfers in Europe.

                            Eritreans Henok Goitom & Alexander Isak @ practice for AIK

In a recent interview about Alexander, his Eritrean hero Henok Goitom had this to say about Alexander,  "If you educate Alexander Isak, in a good way, he can have a big future. He already has a good understanding of the game." For millions of fans including soccer fans in Eritrea who are obsessed with the British Premier league Sunday mornings may start to become exciting as they watch one of their own on the big screens should any of the Premier league end up with him. Even if he goes to any of the other teams the bottom line is Alexander Isak has made Eritrea proud even if it was through Sweden. It is also to be noted that Alexander is on the list of this year's Swedish choice for the rookie of the year in the Allsvenskan (Swedish Premier League). Eri-International Sports blog will continue to inform you on the choice he makes and will attempt to follow his career where ever he ends up. Meanwhile, it's time to rejoice as the Eritrean sports talents are popping up everywhere and making this nation of heroic people proud. No matter what Eritrea will prevail through sports, education, Science, medicine, Technology, music, film, entertainment etc.......

For Eri-International Sports Blog.

Mike Seium