Dennis Ombachi: How the Kenyan rugby player learned to live with bipolar disorder




CNN

There is no greater glory in sport than scoring the winning points at the last minute, wresting victory from the jaws of defeat. The biggest games in sports have that one moment that fans stay in forever. But not for Kenyan rugby’s Dennis Ombachi.

Looking back on his try after the buzzer to send the Kenya Sevens team to the Olympics, he told CNN Sport: “I can’t remember much. All I remember is picking up the towel and hearing the coach, the late Benjamin Ayimba [Kenya’s head coach] and the technical chair was just screaming Omba, Omba!’

From inside his own 22, Ombachi gave Zimbabwe two forwards before crashing down the field to score the try that qualified Kenya for the inaugural Olympic Rugby Sevens event.

Ombachi would go to Rio and join the ranks of the world’s greatest athletes as part of the Kenyan team, becoming a regular with the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series squad.

But at the height of his powers, the Kenyan star suffered a serious broken leg, sidelining him for the better part of the year.

But it was Ombachi’s mental health that would take a bigger hit than his broken leg. Forced to move home and with nothing to do but wait for his leg to heal, Ombachi struggled to cope and eventually tried to take his own life.

“Bones and muscles eventually heal. But what I didn’t really consider was the mental toll it would take on me and that it would last, even though I still suffer a little to this day,” Ombachi recalled.

Thanks to the intervention of friends and family, Ombachi was hospitalized and eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness characterized by manic highs, depressive lows and possible psychotic episodes.

But Ombachi also remembers that it was his hobby, cooking, that helped him through that dark phase of his life.

The winger always loved food and cooking, a passion that benefited a career that took him all over the world.

“My love for food is linked to playing rugby, it started when I played HSBC legs, you tour 18 countries a year and all these countries have their own culture, language and food. We ate a variety of foods,” Ombachi told CNN Sport.

“I would come home and challenge myself to try to create a few different dishes here and there. I think that’s how the passion grew.”

In particular, the famous chef Gordon Ramsay was an inspiration for the athlete at home.

“It was through his YouTube channel that I got to understand the basics, the principles and how to use your taste buds,” Ombachi said.

“That’s actually what got me through most of my depressed moments, especially the times when I was injured,” he said with a laugh before adding: “In cooking, Gordon Ramsay was my mentor even if he doesn’t know it.”

When Ombachi returned to playing his career he faced another setback, this time in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic.

With the cancellation of the Sevens circuit and the termination of the contract by the Kenya Rugby Union, Ombachi was suddenly once again closed and without income.

So Ombachi went back to the kitchen. And with a DSLR camera brought to him by former captain and mentor Humphrey Kayange, Ombachi started making cooking videos and posting them on Instagram and Twitter.

He quickly developed a style in his videos that would set him apart from other content creators. They were rapid-fire videos, with Ombachi narrating and punctuating every step of the process: “Done!” saying

Ombachi started with a fairly large audience in Kenya as an athlete who was always very active on Twitter and Instagram, but it would be another platform, TikTok, that would make Ombachi a global phenomenon.

Specifically, it was a single video that blasted the player who now resides permanently in Nairobi.

“Every now and then I cook a lot of food and then distribute it to children on the street, I recorded a video once of me doing the same thing,” said Ombachi.

“Cooked, distributed food and went viral on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram. I managed to get more than 300,000 followers from that video alone.’

The video shows Ombachi cooking chicken stew with chapatis, boxing and handing it out to children on the streets of Nairobi, which now has over 15 million views on TikTok alone.

“I think so [cooking for street kids] it comes from when I went back to high school. At one time I was a little depressed, a little lost. So I decided to run away from school. I knew I didn’t want to go home. So I ran away and was a street kid for a week.

“I made a lot of friends on the street and it made me understand and empathize with them, that they are normal human beings who experience the same problems as all of us. My chances are better than theirs. ”

Just like when he was representing Kenya around the world, Dennis remembers his roots and the people he represents. That’s one of the main reasons she’s so open about her mental health struggles.

According to the World Health Organization’s 2017 global mental health report, Kenya was the fifth country in Africa in cases of depression and it is estimated that one in 10 people suffer from a common mental disorder.

The government created a mental health task force in 2019 to tackle the crisis, but as a largely rural-based country, there is still much to be done.

Many athletes and social media personalities have used their platform to talk about mental health and spread awareness by partnering with organizations and charities.

Ombachi supports that work, but also sees an important role for those with a public profile to take on their struggles with mental health.

“If you have ordinary people living ordinary lives talking about it … then it resonates more.”

Now with two young children at home, Ombachi is looking for a more stable lifestyle than that of a rugby player.

Gordon Ramsay is also following in the footsteps of his “mentor” and setting up his own Nairobi-based masterclass to teach people how to cook gourmet food.