It’s early morning, and the training ground is illuminated with a bright, amiable light. The sun makes the track where athletes usually sweat it out look genial and mild. It’s here that we meet Vanessa, a young athlete with HSV (Hamburg Sport Club), and join her to experience a day in her life. In conversation, she talks about how she coped during the pandemic, and how her experiences of it have opened up new perspectives for her. But issues such as home schooling and racism are things that occupy her thoughts too.
hvv switch: Soon you’ll be turning 18. What did you originally imagine your birthday party to be like?
Vanessa: My dream was to wear a nice dress and celebrate my 18th birthday with all my family and friends, just like my big sister did. Unfortunately, the pandemic came along so this is not possible. I hope the situation will improve a bit by the summer so that I can at least have a party with about ten people. Current developments are making me a little pessimistic however whether this will be possible.
hvv switch: How was your experience of the lockdown?
Vanessa: I have grown as a person. At the beginning of the first lockdown I was still very relaxed and just thought everything would all be over after a fortnight. But then the lockdown went on and on, and I wasn’t able to see my friends very often. This gave me plenty to think about. I went for walks a lot and did lots of things with my family.
In one sense I look back on the lockdown positively, as it meant I was able to discover new stuff and new things about myself. But, at the same time, I missed opportunities because of it, like lots of other people.
hvv switch: A lockdown must be particularly frustrating at your age.
Vanessa: I imagined my teenage years a little bit differently, of course. I thought I’d be going to parties, meeting new people and travelling to new places. But fortunately it was still possible to share stuff with other people, at least through the various social media platforms.
hvv switch: How are you getting on with home schooling?
Vanessa: To begin with it was very stressful and disorganised. Our teachers gave us lots of assignments to do at home, but they didn’t have any idea of what it was feasible for home. As time went on, I started writing to-do lists for my week so that I could balance out training, school and everything else, to make sure I didn’t neglect any one thing. Whenever the stress of school became too much, we could turn to our teachers as a class and come up with a solution together. Home schooling has since become much better and more organised as a result.
hvv switch: How did you go about athletics training during the lockdown?
Vanessa: At the start of the first lockdown, my parents wanted me to stay at home and were against me going to train. But as the lockdowns went on, I was allowed to go back to training again. I always looked forward to it because it meant I could see my friends again and do what I enjoy. At home I was usually busy with school and other boring things, but at training I felt free and was able to have fun with my friends, even though we had to keep very strictly to social distancing. Still, it was always enjoyable and I looked forward to training because it made a nice change from the daily routine of home schooling.
hvv switch: How long have you been doing athletics?
Vanessa: I started when I was 13, but it was just for fun to begin with. Back then my sports teacher motivated me to become a track and field athlete and, slightly reluctantly, I eventually started. At some point it developed to the point where I wanted to take athletics more seriously. At that point I was still training just once a week. Then I joined HSV two years ago, and this really challenged me. Training wasn’t just for an hour. It went on for two to two-and-a-half hours, four to five times a week. On one other day in the week I also train at home on those areas where there’s still room for improvement. At the moment, for instance, I’m working on building up my abdominal muscles more.
hvv switch: Unlike amateur athletes, you’re now allowed to train as a group. What’s this kind of training like?
Vanessa: We’re very lucky to be able to train together as a group. We’re very performance-driven and focus on more major competitions like the German Championships and the North German Championships. Compared to hobby athletes, however, our training sessions are much more regular and intensive.
hvv switch: What’s your goal as an athlete?
Vanessa: I’m just looking at how things are going for me as an athlete and I always give one hundred percent in training. Last year I was lucky enough to have the chance to participate in the German Championships, which was my goal at the time. But now I want to achieve an even better ranking and make it into the top 8. That’s a very ambitious goal for me.
I train hard and I train a lot. That’s why I believe I’m capable of reaching my goals at some point.
hvv switch: Do you and your friends motivate and push each other in your training, or is everyone focused on themselves instead?
Vanessa: There are four to five girls in our group, and we’re all at roughly the same level. So we always push and motivate each other in training. We’re friends, but when it comes down to it, each of us wants to be faster than the other and win. Whenever we have to run against one another, we really put our friendship to one side for a moment and do our thing. In the end though, we’re happy for each other, no matter which one of us was faster. That’s really nice.
hvv switch: Although you’re a successful athlete, your career aspirations are different we’ve heard. Is that true?
Vanessa: I want to study medicine and become a pediatrician. At the moment that doesn’t seem very realistic for me, but I’m confident and I think I’ll be able to do that if I work hard and study for it. I want to do a job that isn’t boring and where I don’t just have to sit in an office. Where I can experience something and be active. And, as a doctor, every day is exciting.
If I do manage to become a doctor, I’d especially like to help the people in Guinea-Bissau. Compared to Germany, Guinea-Bissau is a very underdeveloped country and doesn’t have a health system that works very well. Which is why people die there from even minor illnesses, and that’s a great shame.
My parents are from Guinea-Bissau themselves and came to Germany to make a better life for us and for themselves. Guinea-Bissau is a beautiful country where I’m sure I’d be happy. And that’s why I’d like to contribute something to the health of the people there, as a doctor, so that they can also be happy.
hvv switch: Did you think about pursuing this career path after witnessing the conditions in Guinea-Bissau, or did you have these plans beforehand?
Vanessa: I’ve wanted to be a doctor ever since I was a kid. I always thought it was a very cool profession. Then, as I got older, I saw on social media platforms, for instance, how people there starve to death or die from everyday colds. I’ve thought about that a lot and realised that I’d like to change that and that the people there are doing well. Not only in Guinea-Bissau, but in other countries too that don't have the same resources as Germany. Here in Germany, we don’t have to worry about less severe illnesses because you can go to the doctor and get treatment. In Guinea-Bissau it’s not like that and if you fall ill you have to fear for your life.
I want to help people because I grew up with a lot of people and I enjoy making people happy and supporting them.
hvv switch: Do you know any more about your parents’ emigration and why they came to Germany as opposed to another country?
Vanessa: My parents were born and raised in Guinea-Bissau. It was my father who first came here – I don’t know why he came to Germany in particular – and later on my mother came and joined him. They learnt German together here and built lives for themselves. At first they didn’t have much. They had to work hard. Then they had my big sister. That was the start of our family. My parents created a lot from very little. They went to a foreign country to make something of their lives. I think that’s beautiful and very admirable. This was how we managed to become healthy, happy and a big, beautiful family
hvv switch: What’s your opinion of Billstedt?
Vanessa: Many people think badly of Billstedt and that only criminals live here. I found growing up in Billstedt very nice because everyone knows everyone else here and people are friendly. Of course, there are some who aren’t as nice too. But that’s the same way everywhere. Just because you’ve had a bad experience somewhere, you shouldn’t make direct judgements about the whole district and the people who grew up there. Billstedt is a part of me. I spent my entire childhood here and experienced a lot of things. I used to be embarrassed to say that I came from Billstedt, as I thought I’d then be considered a worse person or antisocial. But the people here aren’t anti-social. They’re very nice. They say hello and are really open.
In Billstedt there are lots of houses, families, playgrounds and green open spaces that you don’t always find elsewhere. It’s colourful here; everyone is different. You find lots of different nationalities, which I like as it keeps things from getting boring.
hvv switch: How have you experienced racism in your life?
Vanessa: Of course, experiencing racism was never very nice. It gave me self-doubt and made me wonder if I was really the way people talked about me. For instance, at school some of the other kids would ask me if I’d been burnt because of the colour of my skin, which felt horrible. I started questioning why I was black and didn’t have long blonde hair and blue eyes like my friends did. But my parents always told me not to listen to those people, because they have problems with themselves. They said I was beautiful just the way I am. It was thanks to my big sister too that I managed to love myself. I can now say that I’m beautiful, which I wasn’t able to do in the past. For example, I didn’t think my hair was beautiful back then, but now I think it’s so great that I can do what I want with it. I now love my hair because it is a part of me.
hvv switch: What do you think about Germany?
Vanessa: Germany is an open-minded country because so many people of different nationalities live here, which I think is great. But there are still people who cling to the past. At competitions in Schwerin or Dresden, say, I am sometimes worried about getting racial abuse. Luckily I’ve never been told by an adult that I need to go back to my own country, but some friends of mine have had experiences like this.
hvv switch: With that in mind, what is Hamburg like in particular?
Vanessa: Here in Hamburg I don’t get stupid looks because there are so many different people and skin tones. Things never gets boring in Hamburg and there’s always something to experience. Hamburg is colourful. I love Hamburg.
Hamburg is totally open and I love this city more than anything. I feel really at home here. More at home than anywhere else.
hvv switch: How do you feel when people ask you where you come from?
Vanessa: When people ask me where I’m from, I say that I’m from Germany. But then people want to know where I “really” come from. That’s really sad, because I’m from Germany. I was born here and my whole life is here. Mostly people want to know where my parents come from and where my roots are. But the question of where I come from shouldn’t be relevant at all. If someone wants to be my girlfriend or boyfriend, it shouldn’t matter where I come from, whether I was born in Germany or moved here later in my life. I find it really stupid when people want to know where I “really” come from, because I’m from Germany. I’m from Hamburg.
Every time I introduced myself to a new person, I was worried they’d discriminate against me because of the colour of my skin.
hvv switch: What do you think about the Black Lives Matter movement?
Vanessa: I’ve taken part in some Black Lives Matter demonstrations with my friends and siblings in Hamburg, and I think the movement is a good thing. In other countries, racism is even more widespread and apparent than here in Germany. Like in the USA for instance, where black people are often insulted and attacked for no reason by the police, or racist people in general, due to the colour of their skin. That’s why I’m very much in favour of people taking to the streets, speaking out against this, and condemning such behaviour. Many people also just look the other way when it comes to racism because they don’t really care. I can’t speak from a white person’s perspective. But these people aren’t discriminated against for the colour of their skin. That’s why it’s very important to go to these demonstrations and ask people not to look the other way. Racism has never gone away. It’s always been there, and is still here with us.
hvv switch: Where’s your favourite place in Hamburg and how do you travel around the city?
Vanessa: On sunny days I like to go to the HafenCity neighbourhood with my sister or my friends. What I like most about HafenCity is the modern architecture. You’re close to the water and, in the evening, when the sun goes down, everything looks very beautiful. We like to cycle around, fetch something to eat and look around the area. The atmosphere is always very relaxed. You can hear the water in the background and just switch off. I feel really good there and can forget the stress of school and the pressure to perform for a little while.
hvv switch: What does the term “freedom” mean to you?
Vanessa: Being able to do things that I enjoy. When I can wear what I want. When I can just be who I want to be. For me, freedom is also going anywhere without being afraid that something will happen. Freedom is a very big concept, because everyone defines freedom differently. For some people, freedom might be just being able to go out. For me, freedom is being able to go out and enjoy my life without any worries.
Freedom for me is when I can be myself.
hvv switch: Did the term “freedom” change at all for you during the pandemic?
Vanessa: During lockdowns there are, of course, frequent checks in place when it comes to having to wear a mask, or follow curfew rules. But I’m definitely in favour of that. I felt trapped at home to begin with, but then I found ways to break out of this confinement. For example, now I go for walks a lot, which is something I never used to do. This meant I’ve also explored my neighbourhood better, whereas before I always used to take the same routes on my way to school or training. So at first I underestimated all the options we have, in spite of a lockdown, but now I can also feel free in such a situation.