USA Volleyball Features Ogonna: 2-Time Volle...

Ogonna: 2-Time Volleyball Olympian Turned Surgeon

By Bill Kauffman (bill.kauffman@usav.org) | April 28, 2020, 2:45 p.m. (ET)

Ogonna Nnamani
Ogonna Nnamani Silva, a two-time Olympian and 2008 Olympic silver medalist for Team USA, will finish medical school on May 18 and plans to become a surgeon.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (April 28, 2020) - Ogonna Nnamani Silva, a youth volleyball prodigy turned two-time Olympian for Team USA in indoor volleyball, has traded in her volleyball uniforms for medical scrubs and a career healing people. After she graduates from University of California San Francisco Medical School on May 18, she will have fulfilled two of her lifelong dreams.

Ogonna NnamaniAs a high-flying outside hitter from Normal, Illinois, Nnamani Silva used her precision attacks in the USA Volleyball High Performance pipeline with inclusion on three age-group national teams to catch the eyes of Stanford University. At Stanford, she was a four-time AVCA All-American and led the Cardinal to NCAA titles in 2001 and 2004. She was honored with the AVCA Division I Co-National Player of the Year in 2004 and earned the 2004-05 Honda-Broderick Cup Award as the top female collegiate player across all sports.

Nnamani Silva’s accolades landed her a spot on the U.S. Women’s National Team in 2003 while still at Stanford. She competed in the 2004 Olympic Games and remains the last active collegiate player to represent Team USA in indoor volleyball at the Olympic Games.

Nnamani Silva graduated from Stanford with a degree in human biology in 2005 and put her academic and post-athletic career on hold. She aided the Americans to win silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as one of the youngest members of the team. She had a 17-point performance versus Poland, including 11 kills on 31 errorless attacks, three blocks and three aces. Nnamani Silva helped Team USA win gold at the 2010 FIVB World Grand Prix and fourth place at the 2010 FIVB World Championship.

While playing professionally overseas in Czech Republic, Nnamani Silva got engaged to former Stanford football player Michael Silva on Valentine’s Day in 2011. Shortly thereafter, she decided to put away her volleyball shoes and retire from the game.

Nnamani’s Second Dream

Ogonna Nnamani SilvaNnamani Silva pivoted back to her dream to be in the medical field to replace the void of volleyball.

“After volleyball, I completed the rest of my medical school requirements and studied for the MCAT examination,” Nnamani Silva said. “It was not an easy transition. I was thankful to have incredible support from countless teachers, friends and mentors during my transition. I became a science tutor for college, high school and junior high students. I also worked as a clinical research assistant at the Stanford University Cancer Center under the guidance of Dr. George A. Fisher and Dr. Albert Koong.”

After serving as a clinical research assistant from 2012-15, Nnamani Silva took a deeper dive into her medical career. She enrolled in University of California San Francisco Medical School four years ago at age 33.

“My whole life, I dreamed of being a physician,” Nnamani Silva said. “I grew up with asthma, and my childhood was full of memories in the ER, doctor's office and in a hospital bed. Physicians always instilled a sense of hope in me and after my experience, I wanted to have the chance to do the same for others one day. My desire to be a physician was reinforced throughout college by our Stanford volleyball team physician, Dr. Elaine Lambert, and my sister’s mother-in-law, Dr. Jocelyn Chertoff, because they epitomize brilliance and compassion. It is hard to transition from athletics to ‘real life.’ I am grateful for all the support I received from my family and friends to make it possible.”

Pursuing Medicine with Lessons from the Volleyball Community

Ogonna Nnamani SilvaWhile she started medical school much later than most, she has been using lessons learned in volleyball in the challenging and demanding medical field.

“Medicine and sports are eerily similar,” Nnamani Silva said. “Like in sports, medicine requires you to be mentally tough, resilient, work well in teams, possess cultural humility and have a strong worth ethic.

“There is no way I would have had the success I had in medical school without my experiences as an athlete,” Nnamani Silva continued. “Those experiences prepared me more than I would have ever imagined. My moments as an athlete have sustained me and reminded me of my ability to hang in there when the pressure is high and the conditions are tough. My past teammates and coaches have been there every step of the way. I have enjoyed keeping in touch with them. The bond you form as teammates lasts a lifetime.”

Among Nnamani Silva’s long-lasting ties to the volleyball community to the volleyball community is U.S. Women’s National Team Head Coach Karch Kiraly, who inspires her as his “character and integrity matches al his extraordinary accomplishments in sports.”

Ogonna Nnamani Silva“I reached out to him and asked him for advice because he is so thoughtful about learning and training, and he asked me to buy the book ‘Make it Stick,’” Nnamani Silva said. “I ordered it on Amazon and read it right away. It was a great book about learning theories, and that truly changed my framework for studying. Karch was a proponent of training in game-like conditions as much as possible, and the book discussed similar themes by advocating for the importance of frequent testing and spiral learning to improve knowledge retention.”

Kiraly’s book recommendation came back to Nnamani Silva on her first day in medical school.

“The first slide on my first day of medical school was the cover of the book ‘Make it Stick,’” Nnamani Silva said. “I was shocked! It was a symbolic handoff and represented my formal transition from volleyball to the field of medicine. I am really grateful for his endless support throughout my journey in medical school.”

In a recent panel that both she and Kiraly were on, Nnamani Silva said one message stuck with her. As she remembered, “the one thing that Karch said that resonated with me the most was something similar to the following: In sports, every day, you face difficult circumstances a lot, and the repeated cycles of setbacks and triumph accelerate your growth and development of resiliency.”

Nnamani Silva said she learned similar lessons during her own training with the U.S. Women’s National Team.

“My training days at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was when I was battle-tested as a human being,” Nnamani Silva said. “It taught me how to be physically and mentally tough for extended periods of time.”

Looking Toward the Future

Ogonna Nnamani SilvaNnamani Silva was accustomed to precision attacks in volleyball, and now that type of laser focus will be beneficial in her chosen medical path.

“I am excited to report that I plan to be a surgeon!” Nnamani Silva said. “I received the incredible opportunity to be a postdoctoral research fellow in Dr. Michael Longaker's Lab at Stanford University. Dr. Lonagker is one of the most prolific physician-scientists in the world. He has been a phenomenal mentor and a fantastic person who has supported me every step of the way during my medical school journey. After completion of the fellowship, I plan to apply for residency.”

While Nnamani Silva will pursue a career as a surgeon, the decision was not clear cut at first. Like volleyball at a young age, specialization does not come early in medical training.

“Medical school has reminded me to remain open-minded,” Nnamani Silva said. “I never envisioned myself as a surgeon. But in medical school, you are required to do rotations in all the major specialties: obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, family medicine, internal medicine, neurology, psychiatry, anesthesiology and surgery. I fell in love with surgery during my surgery clerkship. I am excited to be a surgeon one day.”

Looking Back

Ogonna Nnamani SilvaNnamani Silva contrasted her volleyball background to her medical dreams with those who inspired her to be the best she can be.

“I will always be grateful to Coach Pamela Naffziger, who was the first person to introduce me to the game of volleyball,” Nnamani Silva said. “I will never forget that day! I was first inspired to be a surgeon by my teacher Dr. Edward Kim. He was so invested in his students and inspired us to give our best every day. Like great coaches, he has the uncanny ability to share his intellect and enthusiasm with others. He was the first person to encourage us on the rough days and was always there to celebrate the good moments. Above all, he provided exceptional care for his patients. There a number of others at the UCSF Department of Surgery that really solidified my interest in surgery. I specifically like to thank Dr. Sanziana Roman, Dr. Julie Ann Sosa, Dr. Andre Campbell and Dr. William Hoffman for solidifying my desire to pursue a career as a surgeon. They have all been exceptional role models and mentors.”

Nnamani Silva overcame the challenges of returning to school in the demanding medical school curriculum after years away from the classroom with excellent mentors, but also the backing of her family. She married Michael Silva in 2012, and a year later they welcomed daughter Anya into the world.

“I should divide my degree into many pieces,” Nnamani Silva said. “I am so grateful to my husband (Michael) for his devotion and sacrifice. He has gone above and beyond as a husband and father. I am so fortunate to have him in my life. I want to thank my parents (Chika and Uzo) and parents-in-law (Lynn and Frank) for their endless support throughout the years. I am so thankful for my daughter Anya – she has been an endless source of inspiration. I am thankful for my siblings (Njideka, Nnaemeka, and Ikechi), relatives, coaches, teachers and friends for all their love and support! I would not have made it this far without them. I am fortunate to be inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha National Medical Honor Society next month. My success in medical school is a testament to their endless sacrifice and support of my family, friends, coaches, teachers and mentors.”

Medical Career Reinforced by Today’s World

With the world experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, Nnamani Silva said that only reinforces her desire to be in the medical community.

“Absolutely! More than ever before,” Nnamani Silva said. “We are amidst one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime, and I am excited to have the chance to provide care for others when they need it the most!”

In challenging times like COVID-19 or other situations during her medical school, Nnamani Silva goes back to her volleyball roots where a particular song provides ample inspiration.

“When I need an extra jolt of inspiration, I play the Olympic Anthem Bugler’s Dream,” Nnamani Silva said.

And you can be assured Nnamani Silva will be listening to that tune next year during the Tokyo Olympics and supporting Team USA.

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Ogonna Nnamani