Uchenna Ofoha

Athletes Abroad: Playing for the German Bundesliga

Uchenna Ofoha and Patrick Strzalkowski pictured before their pre-season game.

Patrick Strzalkowski, of Madawaska Madmen, and Uchenna Ofoha, of Soul Machine, are both playing for the German 2. Bundesliga this season. Patrick has returned for his 2nd season with VC Gotha in 2. Bundesliga South and Uchenna is playing with CV Mitteldeutschland in 2. Bundesliga North.

These two Premier League athletes don’t play each other during the regular season, but it’s during friendly competition during their pre-season games when these two friends can play together again away from home.

Patrick - Can you talk about the differences between playing volleyball in Germany at a professional level compared to University in Canada or even the Premier League?

Patrick Strzalkowski

There’s quite a number of differences actually. To start, my team here [VC Gotha] is composed of athletes between the ages of 17-31 and some are in school, some work, some have families, and some, like myself, are solely professional players. It’s a change from the 18-23 years old’s you play with at the university level. In university, you bond quickly with your team and often spend many hours together – training, living, studying and partying. Here in Germany, my teammates are all in different life stages with different priorities which can make it difficult to create quick connections and relationships as well as socializing outside of practices. It can be a lonely experience.

There is a lot more down time, I am expected to be at practice 4 times a week and a game 1-2 times a week. Outside of that, my time is my own. Last season, this was tough when volleyball was not going well, I didn’t have something to fall back on as another means to feel productive or someone to fall back on for support. This year, I have been in a German Integration School for 3 hours a day since October. It’s giving me that feeling of being productive when volleyball fails to do so.

Playing overseas is also more stressful, it’s a job at this point. We are expected to perform to a certain standard and are responsible for potential relegation and promotion of the team between leagues, which brings with it the loss or gain of sponsors, money, fans etc. The Premier League was more relaxed and fun in comparison. Being able to play with and against old teammates and adversaries in front of a home crowd makes it really special.

Uchenna Ofoha

Uchenna - What’s been your highlight moment of your professional career now that you’re into your 2nd contract?

I’m lucky enough to have two stand out moments so far, not just one.

The first, our team CV Mitteldeutschland finished the first half of this season with an 11-0 record. We’re all pretty proud of that.

Second, is a personal highlight. I achieved 16 points in one game as a Middle Blocker (with 8 blocks).

Uchenna - You run a business, can you tell us a little about that? How do you manage that from overseas and working it around your training schedule?

Uchenna Ofoha talking with some young fans

I run a business called TutorPrince which is a tutoring company that specializes in tutoring Student Athletes at all levels of education (elementary to post-secondary).

I have a team of successful Student Athlete mentors/tutors who have been through it all and came out on top. They range from Master’s students, Academic All-Canadians and Student-Athletes who achieved 4.0 GPAs while being a top player in their sport.

We not only help with the academics side but also, with goal setting and time management skills. These are critical skills that are required for all successful student athletes!

I run it from Germany by trusting 2 of my main employees to run the administrative side of the business. Emily Nicholishen, a former Premier League athlete and Ryerson Rams volleyball alumni, is the Director of Operations. I handle the finances and some of the marketing along with the scheduling.

I started this business when I was at Ryerson because I noticed a number of student athletes who were struggling with their academics but were smart individuals. I looked into why these athletes weren’t achieving the grades they deserved. The main thing I learned, was that the key to success was the critical combination of studying with the right time management and having the right goal setting skills. And just like that, TutorPrince was born!

Why did you choose volleyball as your sport? Was there a person or a reason that you were influenced by?

Patrick Strzalkowski attacking

Patrick: I played a lot of basketball growing up. In high school I also ran, jumped and threw a bit in Track and Field. I saw this as cross-training for volleyball. A teacher at my high school, Steve Bonazza, was definitely the reason why I switched from basketball and stayed with volleyball. He coached me on 7 different teams in four years across high school, MAC Volleyball Club, Region 3 and Team Ontario. I stuck with volleyball because I loved the team aspect and culture, it’s very team-oriented. One player can help lead a team to victory, but not without every other player being integral in the team’s success.

Uchenna: Funny enough, it’s the sport I was the worst at. I played a lot of sports growing up, volleyball being one of them but for some reason, I was just never GOOD at it. Because of my competitive personality, I wanted to be good and improve my skills. So, I worked at it until I got to the point where I actually grew to love the sport. Going into university, I had to make a decision about what sport I wanted to play and I stuck with volleyball. It was only after my 1st year of playing with Ryerson University that I really made that leap from “not-so-great” to “good” and even then, I had to decide if I wanted to work to become better and play at the high level that my teammates were playing at. So, I went all in and really pushed myself to work hard and improve to play at the level that was needed.

How is the environment playing in Germany compared to anywhere else?

Uchenna Ofoha (right) double blocking with a teammate

Patrick: The environment, particularly at Gotha’s home games, are absolutely amazing. You may only have 200-300 fans but the passion here is much greater than anything I’ve seen in Canada. It’s energetic and the fans are always loud and involved. I feel truly lucky to have fans that I can talk to after every game and have been able to build some great relationships over the last season and a half.

Uchenna: Both countries were great to experience. The level of volleyball played is very similar as well as the environment. But the German fans are a lot more intense. They really appreciate the game which makes playing here very enjoyable.

The living experience is where it is completely different. In Finland, it was cold and dark a lot of the time. But, there was a lot less distractions, so I was able to focus on my playing. Germany has bigger cities and so in that way, it reminds me of Toronto. And the weather is a lot better!

What does the remainder of the season look like for you? Do you have any goals as an individual or as a team you want to achieve?

Patrick Strzalkowski with teammates

Patrick: My team is in a bit of a rough patch at the moment, we are battling to stay in the league. If we finish 11th or 12th in the league we will be relegated, not good. We are currently sitting in 11th [at the time of this interview, February 5th, 2019], 6 points (2 wins) behind 10th and with 8 games left it’ll be a fight to the end. We are looking to win as many games as we can, at least 4 wins will likely secure out team’s spot in this league for next year. [They have 7 games left and they are currently sitting in 11th place as of February 21st, 2019.]

My personal goal is to pass my German language test!

Uchenna: Our team won the 2. Bundesliga North last season, and we’re on track to do the same this season. If we win, we have the opportunity to move up to the 1. Bundesliga. Last year, the team chose to stay in the 2nd league just due to sponsorship opportunities that were available. So, there will be a discussion to see what the team wants later down the road. But I think that would be an awesome accomplishment.