Heralded Nigerian Ice Blazers are in pursuit of more honours at Winter Olympics
This is because of the historic appearance of Seun Adigun, Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga for the Bobsled event and Simidele Adeagbo for the Skeleton event.
Seun, Ngozi and Akuoma started this amazing journey for Nigeria at the Winter Olympics.
Born and brought up in Chicago, Illinois in the United States of America, Seun Adigun was a 100 meters hurdle athlete. She represented Nigeria in the 100 metres hurdles. She won a medal for Nigeria at the 2010 African Athletics Championship in Nairobi.
She also competed at the 2011 International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in Daegu and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
She fell in love with Bobsled around 2014 and tried out for the USA Bobsled team. Despite making it, she opted out with other ideas.
She went on to recruit her Onwumere and Omeoga and together they formed Nigeria’s first bobsled team.
“I had this conviction that it was going to be historic and put our names in the record books,” Seun told Pulse Sports in an interview before they jetted out to Pyeongchang for the Olympics.
“I know there were going to be challenging but I never let those fears stop me. ”
On recruiting her teammates, she said; “I think it went very well, sometimes they say I kidnap them, sometimes they say.”
Ngozi Onwumere who is a brakeman in the team was born in Mesquite, Texas. Before she was introduced to bobsled, Onwumere was already a sprinter who specialises in the 100 metres, 200 metres, 400 metres and 4x10 metres relay.
She won a gold medal for Nigeria in the 4 x 100 metres relay at the 2015 All-Africa Games in Brazzaville, Congo alongside Blessing Okagbare, Lawretta Ozoh and Cecilia Francis. She also competed at the 2015 IAAF World Relays in Nassau, Bahamas.
“I had known her (Seun) for a long time and when she told me about it, I saw the significane and couldn’t wait to be part of it,” Ngozi said.
The 26-year-old has a University degree from the University of Houston where she was first recruited to the school’s Track and Field programme as a sprinter and jumper back in 2009 by Seun.
Omeoga was born in St. Paul Minnesota-born to parents from Abia State and the youngest of four girls.
Her journey into sports started at the University of Minnesota where she was recruited to the school's Track and Field programme.
She was introduced to bobsled by Seun after they met through a mutual friend at a BBQ restaurant.
“The first time we met at a restaurant. The conversation was really nice and long and it wasn't about Bobsled at all,” Akuoma recalled.
“It's almost like crazy and such a surprise and never expect it to be what it is now. Even at that time when I said yes to bobsled, I did not necessarily say yes to all of this, I’m fortunate to be part of this.”
Despite their dreams, mission and determination, selling Bobsled or similar sports to Nigerians was going to be a difficult pursuit.
And to actually represent Nigeria in an international tournament, they needed the country’s sports ministry to have a Bobsled federation and that was were Chief Solomon Ogba came in.
Ogba is a former president of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria (AFN) and with him leading the charge, the Bobsled and Skeleton Federation of Nigeria was formed.
“There is always going to be the discouragement, people were confused as to how it would work but most people were encouraging because the sports were looking to grow and they were looking to create more women’s team and never in the sports had they had a representative from Africa,” Seun said.
“So they were very eager to have their first African country represented, they believed that from what I presented and how I helped to set it up that we had what it took to get the first team on the map so they were actually very encouraging.”
“The public and people were kind of looking at is as a joke, but as they started to see that we were making strive more encouragement came from that.”
It was in December 2016 that the girls first made public they quest to make history for Nigeria at the Winter Olympics. To fund their mission, they launched a go-fund-me account to solicit for $150, 000.
With the help of Lagos-based management company Temple Management, unexpected help started coming.
With their growing social media profile, mentions from international press and the story of their amazing journey, it wasn't long that sponsors started coming. Global payment technology company Visa was the first one.
“I think the biggest attraction was the innovation, along with the same platform of what it means to represent something that is new, a breath of fresh air,” Seun said.
“The biggest thing about the go-fund-me campaign was one to raise awareness, of what it means that we are doing and what it means that we were trying to achieve,” Seun also said.
The story of the Nigerian Bobsled team was so inspiring to many including Simidele Adeagbo a former athlete who had retired. Although she never got to represent Nigeria as an athlete, Simi is a four-time finalist in the triple jump at the All American National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada the 36-year-old was inspired by the story of Seun, Ngozi and Akuoma and attended a draft organised by the Bobsled and Skeleton Federation of Nigeria in Texas.
She could not make it in Bobsled but ended up in Skeleton.
Unlike Bobsled which involves two or four persons, one person is involved in Skeleton. This person rides a small sled, known as a skeleton bobsled (or -sleigh), down a frozen track while lying face down (prone). Like bobsled, the race begins with a running start from the opening gate at the top of the course.
“I never tried it before the draft but for me, I think I still have some athlete abilities,” Simi.
“I was more attracted by the bigger significant and opportunity. Yes, it’s good to be an Olympian, I’m very happy about that, I just wanted to make history and do something that’s never been done before.
“So that’s what attracted me and that’s why I flew to Houston for the trial and went to see what can be.”
The four Nigerian women who are competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics are already heroes. During their visit to Nigeria just before jetting off to Pyeongchang, they were hosted by a host of sponsors.
They even got the presidential approval as president Muhammadu Buhari sent them goodwill messages ahead of the Olympics. They have gotten press from international media and the girls- with the exception of Simi- were the subject of a news documentary by American television station, NBC 5 Chicago.
In early December 2017, Seun, Ngozi and Akuoma were guests on prime American TV talk show, Ellen hosted by Ellen DeGeneres. They also received a shout-out from tennis legend Serena Williams.
“I watch her and I’m on her show so everything came full circle and Ellen has a huge viewership,” Ngozi said.
“Without being said, we set out to create awareness and when you are on Ellen, everyone is watching so I was excited to be there.”
Asked about the shout-out from Serena Williams, they gasped for air, unable to express their feelings.
With huge followers which they had garnered with stories of their amazing journey come huge expectations. Nigerians will be keen to see how they perform.
A medal win from any of them will be heralded while anything less will buttress pessimists’ points that Bobsled and Skeleton are not Nigerian sports.
“One thing that we are very open to is that people are going to have their own opinions, people are going to have their ability to express themselves,” Seun said.
“Inasmuch as that you have 99% that are excited and encouraging, who understand what the bigger picture is, you have your one percent who love being in their element.
“We respect what everyone feels and we know the bigger picture and we know what it is that we are going for and I think that the majority of the everyone else understands that we don’t really focus on that kind of things (negatives) because at the end of the day the impact is so much greater on the positive end than anyone one end that it’s one of those things that they agree to disagree and respect.”
Having competed in the Summer Olympics, Simi and Ngozi believe that the Winter Olympics will be totally different.
“I definitely think it’s s going to be different just because we did track and field it was really for ourselves," Ngozi said.
“We had joy in representing the country but we never thought that this will get this big to the point that we have emails from young girls and parents saying ‘thank you so much because our children have something to look out for and they can now dream without being fearful or go after our dreams."
“Because the Nigerian culture sometimes we are not so receptive to people doing different things so we wanted to open the door for our youth to be able to aspire to be whatever they want to be. We are Nigerians we can do anything we want to be, we are strong, we are powerful, we have the spirit. If we stick together and believe we can do anything.”
Despite being new to the sports, the abilities of the girls are not in doubt.
In Whistler for the last stage of qualification for the Bobsled event, Team Nigeria was the only country to complete the race.
Ogba pointed out that the feat was the equivalent of winning an Olympic medal.
“If that was the Olympics, that was the Gold medal. Even America could not complete the race, they can repeat it,” Ogba said.
Simi in the last two qualifications made the podium in the North American circuit which is considered the most important circuit in this Skeleton.
“So if she can contest at the biggest circuit and she is on the podium, a bit of hard work and luck something can happen. It is doable,. We are going to compete,” Ogba added.
Though spurred by the 2018 Winter Olympics, the future of Bobsled and Skeleton in Nigeria do not depend on their performances at the Games.
The Bobsled and Skeleton Federation of Nigeria have plans in place to continue discovering and monitor athlete.
“We have a coach we are going to the Olympic with, the coach will train other coaches in Nigeria,” Ogba said.
“They can train in Nigeria and go to the Ice in winter regions.”
"Even outside the US, so many people. Nigerians are all over the globe, and the message we giving out is that wherever you are, they are more people who are going to follow their footstep."