Kenya Lionesses star Janet ‘Shebesh’ Okello has joined Japanese women’s rugby club MIE Pearls.
The experienced winger scored two tries as his Mwamba side edged out Impala Roans 15-11 to be crowned the inaugural Kenya Women’s Cup champions at Impala Club on Saturday, March 19, 2022.
She becomes the first Kenyan to play professional rugby in Japan, and the second member of the Lionesses to venture abroad in recent months.
This follows former Lionesses skipper Philadelphia Olando landing the role of head coach of the UAE women’s national rugby team.
Popularly known as ‘Shebesh’, the 29-year-old was part of the Lionesses squads that represented Kenya at the 2016 and 2020 Olympics as well as the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
The winger joins the Yokkaichi City-based side on a one-year contract with new Kenya Cup champions Mwamba RFC.
His Irish-Fijian manager Linda Shannon confirmed the development on Monday.
Okello, who is set to take over as national team captain from United Arab Emirates (UAE) women’s national team head coach Philadelphia Olando, told Standard Sports that she had looking forward to arriving in Japan on April 4th.
“I feel so proud myself because this is my dream come true. I achieved my ultimate goal, almost all of my goals in rugby and that makes me a happy athlete,” Okello said.
Okello revealed that his move to Japan started after the Tokyo Olympics.
“It all started in Japan right after our games at the Olympics when a players agent approached me and said she was watching all my games and was interested in signing me up to play professional rugby because that I have the qualities.”
“And after that, she managed to find me a club in Japan,” she explained.
Okello’s rugby career wasn’t on the radar until 2010, when she was at Butere Girls’ High School, when games teacher Mr Malala encouraged her to play. She originally had aspirations around an entirely different sport – athletics.
Born and raised in Nakuru, the 29-year-old said growing up her dream was to become a sprinter.
“While growing up at Mama Ngina Primary School, I was competing in 100m and 200m sprints where I beat my competitors,” said Okello, the first born in a family of six siblings.
Her rugby adventure didn’t start until she joined Butere Girls High School in 2009. “I took athletics seriously during my first year.
She pays a heartfelt tribute to late Lioness captain Aberdeen Shikoyi for her help and encouraged her to take rugby seriously.
“In 2011, I had the privilege of participating in the Safaricom Sevens High Schools tournament where I met the late Shikoyi (then captain of the Kenya Lioness) who advised the national team to take me after completing the form four,” she said.
True to Shikoyi’s words, Okello joined the national team straight out of school, making his senior debut with the Kenya Lioness at the Dubai Sevens in December 2013.
She then joined KCB in the same year she became the Kenya Rugby Union (KRU) top 10 try scorer and top points scorer for the women’s 7s and 10s league from 2013 to 2016.
Okello helped Kenya qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, a feat she says she treasures.
In 2017, she signed up for Mwamba RFC where she finished top try scorer in the KRU 10s and 7s last year.
As the Lionesses of Kenya sailed through to the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, Janet Okello acted as the shy but composed ‘backbone of the team’ at the Robina Stadium.
In the qualifiers, Okello scored a hat-trick against Senegal in their second game and netted two in the win over Tunisia which sent them to the Gold Coast competition.
Despite her youth, Okello beat world marathon record holder and Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge and teammate Sinaida Aura to the September 2017 Sports Journalists Association of Kenya (SJAK) Sports Personality of the Month.
Last year, she helped the women’s national rugby 7s team qualify for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics despite losing 15-14 to arch-rivals South Africa in the final 7-a-side African Olympic qualifiers in Tunisia this weekend.
She was also voted Magharibi Women’s Rugby Player of the Year.
She says the sport helped even as young as she was.
“Rugby taught me to lead, to be a strong, confident and independent woman and to work as a team”