Nigeria’s first bobsled team running for pride and legacy
Seun Adigun told herself her athletic career was done after she ran her last race at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. But for some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to tell the world.
Three years later, she realized: Adigun wasn’t retiring — she was readying for a new sport. And her years competing as a 100-meter hurdler were great preparation what would come next.
“It was the speed and the power and the strength that I needed to be able to be a successful bobsled athlete,” she said.
Adigun, 31, soon convinced fellow former runners Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga to join the team as brakemen. But they wouldn’t just be newcomers to the sport.
The trio will represent Nigeria as the country fields its first-ever bobsled team at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. The team is also a first, men’s or women’s, for the entire continent of Africa.
Yes, they get the comparisons to “Cool Runnings” — the 1993 film based on the true story of the Jamaica’s first bobsled team, which was male, that competed in the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Canada — and say it’s a legacy they embrace and a following they hope to emulate.
But the peppy pioneers, all American-born and whose parents emigrated from Nigeria, said they also look forward to representing a positive story about their motherland.
“Nigerians are so excited to see the country being represented,” said Adigun, a Chicago native who is also a three-time national track champion for Nigeria. “I realized exactly what was a void from the country of Nigeria, from the continent of Africa, and for women in general being represented.”
Onwumere, 26, agreed: “To be the first to do anything is, I think, it’s just something that you can’t really explain.”
Their story will likely take on added meaning next month, after President Donald Trump’s recent remarks about Africa’s “shithole countries.”
Their journey to South Korea has also been a fast one. Three years ago, the team was little more than an idea, a “crazy but amazing journey,” said Adigun, the driver in role and personality who also helped recruit and coach Onwumere, who hails from Dallas, at their alma mater, the University of Houston.
Once her teammates were on board, Olympic rules required them to operate under a national governing body. None existed.
The Bobsled and Skeleton Federation of Nigeria was formed. A GoFund Me campaign was created in 2016, and the team raised more than $75,000 in 14 months to pay for necessities like helmets, uniforms, travel and their first sled — a wooden vessel affectionately named “The Maeflower.” They began practicing in Houston, without snow.
The team’s popularity soon attracted Visa and Under Armour as sponsors. To qualify for the Winter Games, the women had to complete five races. They met their goal in November.
Along the way, their energy and enthusiasm has attracted attention in the U.S. and Nigeria. In December, they appeared on “The Ellen Show,” and last week, tennis icon Serena Williams retweeted their Beats by Dre Olympics ad.
The team said they’re excited to walk into the stadium in Pyeongchang next month and have been working hard to be competitive as rookies among a pool of talented and experienced bobsledders. Their main goal is to be an example for their country and for women in the sport.
A medal is almost too much to think of, said Omeoga, 26, who ran track at the University of Minnesota.
“That actually has never even crossed my mind yet,” she said. “I’m just taking things one day at a time: Don’t get too ahead of yourself, don’t get too behind yourself, don’t sell yourself short on anything.”
Bobsled and Skeleton Federation of Nigeria: https://bsfnigeria.com/
Errin Haines Whack is The Associated Press’ national writer on race and ethnicity. Follow her work on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/emarvelous
More AP Olympics: https://wintergames.ap.org