Kelowna's Joni Frei

Frei inspired by Ugandan spirit

Joni Frei, a former NCAA softball player and coach from Kelowna, will coach Uganda's national women's at next year's worlds in Canada

Joni Frei has been both humbled and inspired by more than two decades of experiences on the softball diamond.

Nothing, it would seem, has had a more meaningful impact on the Kelowna native than her recent connection to the sport in a third-world African nation.

Frei, a former NCAA player and coach, was named this year as the head coach of Uganda’s national women’s softball team.

If all goes as planned and the necessary funds are raised, Frei will be guiding the first-ever Ugandan squad to play at the World Women’s Softball Championship next summer in Surrey.

“The players live in very rough conditions,” Frei said of many of the women who will play for Uganda. “It’s a story of hope, it’s giving these girls an opportunity to dream big far beyond what any of them know.”

For Frei, the relationship with Ugandan softball essentially began when two female coaches from the African country shadowed her at various camps and clinics in Canada for four months during the summer of 2014.

After gaining their certification, the two coaches returned home to educate more coaches in Uganda and to teach the game to players all across the country.

During that time, the governing body for women’s softball increased the number of countries allowed at the world championship and that opened the door for Uganda to put a team together for 2016.

Frei has since made two trips to Africa—in January and again this fall—to share her expertise with young players in Uganda, while also training teachers, coaches and players in preparation for worlds.

The challenge now is raising enough money—as much as $50,000—to finance the trip.

Some of those funds—about $5,000 to date—are being generated by the sale of beaded necklaces made by young women who live in slums in Uganda.

“Granted, it’s a lot of funds to raise, a huge feat, but it’s got to happen,” said Frei, who is also the director of coaching for Softball B.C. “There are so many people who are pitching in to help out, it’s really humbling to see.”

People from all over the world have offered to step up and lend a hand, including a former player of Frei’s from the Austrian national team.

Catharina Rauch now lives in Uganda with her husband and is helping to develop the game in the country’s northern regions.

While the Ugandan team is in Canada, Frei said the players will do more than just play softball.

The women will also be offered seminars and workshops on subjects such as accounting, micro financing, small business and early childhood health.

“It’s knowledge to empower them, that they can use and also pass on when they return home,” Frei said.

While there is still much to learn for Ugandan players, Frei said their passion for the game is second to none.

Frei, for one, is grateful that softball has brought two differing cultures together.

“I’m so motivated by their spirit and passion,” said Frei. “The game unites us. We’re from very different worlds but on the softball field we’re all the same.

“It’s not just about the game though, it’s about what happens beyond the white lines. The sport is a vehicle and a catalyst for opportunity.”

While Frei operates as head coach from Canada, she has assistants on the ground in Uganda preparing the national team. The top 25 athletes have been identified and will play a three-game series in Kenya.

Seventeen of those will be chosen to join Frei and her coaching staff in Canada next July.

To assist in the fund raising effort for the Ugandan women’s team, visit

gofundme.com/TeamUganda2016.

 

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