Nigerian bobsled team enjoys 'mind-blowing' ride to Pyeongchang

Seun Adigun will never forget the moment she raced across the finish line at a bobsled competition in Calgary last month and came one step closer to earning her ticket to the 2018 Winter Olympics — and the history books. 

By completing five required qualifying races, Adigun and her two teammates on the Nigerian bobsled squad are nearly assured a trip to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February. They just have to maintain their ranking in the top 40 until Jan. 14, which they don’t expect will be a problem.

“I couldn’t breathe, literally. I think it was a moment of celebration only because of the milestones that we created along this entire journey,” said Adigun, whose team is hoping to become the first Nigerian athletes to compete in a Winter Games.

After running the 100-metre hurdles for Nigeria at the London Games in 2012, the Chicago-born Adigun decided to step away from athletics.

But just two years later, she found herself itching to compete again. She decided to try bobsledding after being inspired by other track athletes who’d taken up the sport (the most famous example being U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones). 

Around that time, Nigeria was looking to establish a Winter Olympic team and officials approached Adigun about putting together the African country’s first-ever bobsled squad. She took on the challenge and recruited sprinters Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga as brakewomen. 

“I knew her for maybe two months at the time, and I said, ‘Yeah, sure, sounds like a great idea!'” said Omeoga, who competed in track at the University of Minnesota but had no bobsled experience.

Among the many early challenges was training for a winter sport in warm weather. Adigun was studying to be a chiropractor in Houston and needed to find a way for the team to practise. So she went to a local hardware store and built a makeshift wooden sled with wheels. It allowed the team to work on their starts on a running track at the University of Houston.

Funding was also a big issue, so Adigun started a GoFundMe campaign that easily reached its goal of $ 75,000, due in large part to a single $ 50,000 anonymous donation. 

The new Cool Runnings?

The team’s story may sound familiar.

It was almost 30 years ago that the Jamaican bobsled team captured the world’s imagination at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. They, too, were athletes representing a warm-weather country looking to break through in a winter sport. Their story was the inspiration for the 1993 movie Cool Runnings, starring the late John Candy as the team’s coach. 

Adigun says she’s watched the movie, but it wasn’t the team’s main motivation. She says she knew comparisons were inevitable and she’s honoured by them.

Jamaican Bobsled Auction 20160729

A still from the 1993 film ‘Cool Runnings,’ which tells the story of the Jamaican bobsled team that competed at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary. (Handout/Fox/Canadian Press)

“We’re just fine with the comparison because they’re celebrated,” she said. “You know, if we can do something like that, that would be amazing.”

Unlike the members of the Jamaican team, who were all from Jamaica, all three women on the Nigerian team were born in the U.S. to Nigerian parents. Adigun was born in Chicago, Omeoga in Minnesota and Onwumere in Texas.  

Competing and inspiring

Nonetheless, the Nigerian team’s story has taken the world by storm. They’re doing press events and were recently featured on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. During a recent trip to Nigeria, the teammates were amazed at the public’s awareness of the sport and the excitement for their quest.

“It’s a blessing. It’s mind-blowing,” Adigun said.

With high-powered sponsors like Visa now helping to fund their efforts, they’re confident they’ll give it their best in South Korea.

They’re also keenly aware that they’re seen by many as role models.

Omeoga said knowing they have the power to inspire has been a motivation.

“I think the fact that people are looking up to us is actually what’s making us strive to be better.”

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