One of Nigeria’s impending history makers at this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, Simidele Aeagbo has promised to unfold a new bag of skills that will help her shock the world by snatching a medal in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Adeagbo will etch her name and that of Nigeria in the record books, when she competes as the first African in Skeleton sport at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
In this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA, the 36-year-old talks about her family background, advent into sports and historic qualification for the Winter Olympics…
Who is Simidele Adeagbo?
Simidele Adeagbo is a creative force, she is very determined, a pioneer, a business woman, an extraordinary athlete and a Nigerian. She is a sister, a friend, a Christian and she loves God and through this journey, God has even shown her how faith is most important because faith made this possible.
Simidele in Yoruba means ‘accompany me home’. Has this name played a role in your life?
It was given to me because I was born in Canada and a couple of months later I accompanied my parents back home to Nigeria. Interestingly enough, it has played an interesting role in my life because about five years ago, I moved back to Africa – I live in Johannesburg, South Africa – and for me that was really why I wanted to be a part of this. Living in Africa for the past four-and-a-half years has shown me the beauty, the resilience and how great the people in Africa are and I think sometimes the world doesn’t get to see that. I think through this, I have been able to show the world just what we can do. I feel like this is my opportunity through sports to redefine how people see Africa. That has always been a driving force for me. My name kind of embodies me coming back home in the last five years and what I am doing here.
Are you the only athlete in your family?
No, I come from a family of athletes. My sisters and I ran the tracks at the University of Kentucky. My brother was also a track athlete at his college. So we grew up playing sports but I am the only one who has reached the level of an Olympian.
Why did you choose to represent Nigeria and not the US or Canada?
I have multiple passports so I have options but for me I think Nigeria has always been home. It is always a thing that I put as a place of pride that I am a Nigerian. I can’t escape it – I am so happy that I have a Nigerian name. Everywhere I go, people know who I am and where I come from. So, it’s a blessing actually to be able to represent Nigeria.
What roles did your parents, family and Nigerians play in helping you get to the level you are now?
I think they’ve played an important role even though they didn’t understand the sport but they never discouraged me – Nigerians kept encouraging me as well. I saw my social media following grow and the comments from them expressing their support for me on the journey has its way of keeping me going through the difficult times.
How does it feel going to the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang?
This has been a dream I have always wanted to achieve. I have worked all my life to be an Olympian and this is special because we are making history doing it. I am glad that I have achieved my lifelong dream of being an Olympian, but even more so breaking barriers in winter sports.
Would you say qualifying for the Olympics is probably the greatest achievement you have made?
Yes. I have done a lot of things in my career. I did a lot of things in track and field but the Olympics is the pinnacle of sports. So I feel that it is a great accomplishment. But outside of qualifying for the Olympics and becoming an Olympian, to me what I am starting to come to terms more and more is the impact that what I have done is going to make. There’s going to be a lot of Olympians in the future but there’s something special about being the first – myself and the other three ladies are the first – and that to me is special in nature because we’ve made history and our names will forever be in the history books, which cannot get erased.
What was going through your mind in the final qualifier – were you afraid you wouldn’t make it?
For the final qualifiers, I think I had already had a lot of great training so I felt confident going into the race. I just believed that if I did everything that I needed to do, everything would go well and it did. Not only did it go well, I was able to get on the podium in my last two races which is an achievement I am very proud of. This is because never in the history of Skeleton sport has an African – male or female – ever reached the podium in any international competition. For me, that was the sign of progress that I have made over the short unconventional journey and it is giving me more confidence as I go to the Olympic Games.
What are the challenges you’ve faced?
My lack of experience was the first challenge. This is a sport where I was told that it generally takes about eight years for one to progress into a top level athlete. I didn’t have eight years, I had eight weeks plus – so I’ve had to learn a whole lot in a short period of time. Also over that course of weeks, I had injuries – when you are learning, you have to hit a lot of the walls and it is very painful – I had some bruises, chin scrapes, and many more. Each time you do something like that, you have to learn from it. It has not been easy because the sport is hard on the body due to its demands. So I’ve had to just overcome all of that to get to where I am today.
How have you been preparing for the Olympics?
I have been preparing for weeks ago. One of the most important things to succeed in the sport is to learn the track. This is a new track for me and I have never been on the track before. I have already started watching videos of the track, visualising myself on the track and I had to spend some time in Canada – a couple of weeks ago – so that I can get some more experiences and time on the ice. I am fighting against experience – some of the girls that will be at the Olympics must have been doing the sport for years and here I am doing it in four months – so I am trying my best to get more experience and exposure and learn what I need to stay prepared.
What are your targets at the Olympics?
For me, I believe if I do my best I will succeed – coming off the back of two medals at the last two races that I competed in has given me a lot of confidence and shown me the potential I have in the sport. I think when I first started; I didn’t know what my potential was. I was just trying to survive and see what was possible but when I now made the progression, I saw that I can really do it. I think the possibilities going into the Games are endless. I can push the fastest time – that’s the first 30 to 40 metres – I know that’s a skill that if I unleash fully, the other girls won’t be ready for it. That is something that I definitely will utilise to the best of my ability because that’s my competitive advantage. Outside of that, I just need to relax and trust in the training that I’ve had and know that if I go there to do my best, anything is possible.
You are the only Skeleton athlete in Africa. How are you hoping to inspire other Africans to take up the sport?
I think other Africans need to see that it is possible. Sometimes if you don’t have a reference point, you don’t know if it’s possible. Before Barack Obama, people might have never thought that there could be a black president in the United States. Sometimes if people see, then they follow. I think our role is to inspire – to allow people to see that it is possible and then follow in our footsteps. Maybe it could be Skeleton or Bobsled but on a larger scale, I think there could be other sports or other areas of life that people think there is a barrier that they can’t break but I hope that through what we’ve done, they could see that anything is possible and that you just take the steps to do it.
You were in track and field for 10 years but couldn’t make the Olympics. Now you have made it through a winter sport. Was it the determination to be an Olympian that got you into the Skeleton sport?
Yes and no. Part of it was my dream but I think the bigger thing that got me inspired was when I heard of the (Nigerian)bobsled team. They were already having the ambition to make this historic quest. I thought that it was such a great thing to do because it is important to leave a legacy and to make a way for future athletes. So immediately I wanted to be a part of it because I saw it as a way to make history and create a path for future athletes. That was the main reason I picked up the Skeleton sport.
You just started the sport last September. How were you able to adapt and grow fast in it?
I think what I had working for me was my background in track and field – I have strength, speed and skill and those are the necessary skills needed to succeed in the sport. Outside that, I just poured myself into learning and I was very committed. I worked hard as well. I think a combination of my natural skills as a track and field athlete and my commitment and hard work all contributed to making me being here today in a very short time and in a very unconventional path. In less than four months, I was able to make the team and I am very excited about that.
What role has the Nigeria Bobsled and Skeleton Federation played in ensuring that you get proper preparations for the Olympics?
I think the federation needs to be commended. It’s taken so much time, resources and energy to build this from the ground up. I came in within the last six months and the foundation has been built since two years ago or thereabout. I really commend the federation for taking the steps to put everything in place. There is still work to be done but we certainly have a great foundation. They’ve set up the proper paperwork to connect us with the right people on the international federation and really just made a way for us.
How much of Nigeria do you know?
I know die die Yoruba (I understand a little of Yoruba language). My Yoruba skills are still in development and I will love to be more fluent in it. It’s something that I try to work on as much as I can. I know the foods, the music, and some other things. I think there is a great kind of mix in this new generation – like you are Nigerian with a bit of South African or a Nigerian with a bit of American – and this represents a new generation of Nigerians. For instance, my grandfather is from Oke-Imesi, I may never have lived there but I understand where he came from and I am also blending that now with the new things I know from South Africa, Canada and the US and it still makes me a Nigerian. That is what is great about this new generation.
What is your favourite Nigerian food?
I like meat pie a lot and I also like Jollof rice – both of them aren’t on the training diet but I still like them. I also like pounded yam – the freshly pounded one and not the derived ones – with egusi soup.
Who is your favourite Nigerian artiste?
I like the afro beat artistes – whichever one of them Davido, Tiwa Savage and the others.
Who is your favourite Nigerian actor?
I don’t always watch a lot of Nigerian movies. I know Genevieve (Nnaji) and some other ones but I am not a huge consumer of Nigerian movies.
Which is your favourite Nigerian city?
I’ve been to both Lagos and Abuja but Lagos to me is more vibrant and feels more like New York – it’s fun for a few days but it’s always good to go away from the chaos. I like Ibadan as well – it is where I grew up until I was six and I still have some family members there. I like it also because in Ibadan you get some activity but you are not going to be in the chaos of Lagos and you are also not going to be in the village. My mother is from Ifaki and my dad is from Oke-Imesi – when you are there, you are sure to be bored. But Ibadan is in the mix of both village and the city life.
What’s your advice to young Nigerians who want to be like you?
I think young Nigerians need to focus on who they are – for example, for me this is my path and I am grateful for it and the skills that I have. Part of this journey has been understanding what my God-given tools and gifts were. So, when you understand what your gifts are, you know what your unique shape is, and then you can use them to the best of your ability. I will ask them to think in what capacity they could be used and not to be afraid to do it. The two questions I asked myself when I began this journey were; somebody has to make history, why not me and why not now?
We don’t need to wait and we don’t need to look to other people. They should believe that they can do it – and know that it is up to them to create the future that they want to see. There are so many challenges that young Africans face in this world – there are so many problems with so many opportunities that can be solved. I will encourage them to take the bull by the horns and do what they can to contribute in any way they can. I am doing mine through sports but maybe for them, there is another way and another thing that they can do. They should never be afraid to do what they think they should be doing.
#Culled from PUNCH newspaper