Can you imagine teaching yourself a sport, with few of the necessary resources, and becoming good enough at it to compete against the world’s most elite athletes in a little over a year? It’s the definition of “started from the bottom now we here,” and it’s exactly what happened for the first-ever Nigerian Women’s Bobsled Team, who will race at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Back in the winter of 2016, Seun Adigun, 31, picked up some wood from her local Home Depot in Houston, Texas, and built a bobsled in her garage. She’d gotten the spontaneous idea to put together a team, and there were two women in particular she wanted to join her. All three share an intense competitive streak as former track stars, and they all have a strong cultural identity as first-generation Americans raised by Nigerian parents. Because of that bond, and thanks to their dual citizenship, Adigun decided they should represent the country of Nigeria in the unlikely sport of bobsledding. Akuoma Omeoga, 25, and Ngozi Onwumere, 26, put their corporate America careers on hold to join Adigun on the journey.
“None of us knew what we were really getting ourselves into when we decided to do the sport of bobsled,” Adigun tells Complex from PyeongChang, South Korea. “Sometimes people are handicapped by that fear. That fear of like, I don't know what's on the other side of the door. This is unusual. This is not normal. Society doesn't quite understand this.”
At the time, Africa didn’t even have a governing body to petition as far as qualifying for the Winter Olympics. Plus, Adigun was in grad school working on two degrees, a doctorate of chiropractic and a master's in sports science. But her sights were set not just on learning a cold-weather sport in sunny Texas, but on taking the team to the highest level. It took hard work, faith, and a little help from social media.
In November of 2016, the women launched a GoFundMe campaign. At that point, they hadn’t touched ice, barely had any equipment, and needed to travel to snowy cities to practice. Adigun just wanted to be able to rent a real sled and buy some uniforms so they could qualify for their first race. To the team’s surprise, their campaign gained traction. Before they knew it, they’d met their $75,000 goal, appeared in a Beats by Dre ad, and secured endorsements from VISA and Under Armour, the latter of whom captured the team's uphill battle in a short film series called "Ice Blazers."
“We really became that representation of what it means to be innovative and to be able to just do things without being limited by what it means to have all these expenses, so we couldn't be more blessed to utilize the platform of GoFundMe,” says Adigun. “It's not only just a place where we created awareness for what we were doing but also an opportunity to partner up with some of the most prominent and major global sponsors that are out there.”
So, GoFundMe gets credit for easing the financial burden, but the women still had to do the work it takes to become the first Nigerians to compete in the Winter Olympics. Here is where we note that Adigun was actually gunning for her second shot at the Games. She breathed the rarified air while running for Nigeria at the 2012 Summer Olympics, but after a disappointing finish, she went home and started coaching track at the University of Houston. However, the desire to compete wouldn’t stop calling. Adigun noticed that some of her former colleagues, stars like Lolo Jones and Aja Evans, found life after track by transitioning to the sport of bobsled. She followed their lead, beginning her training in 2015 and earning a spot as a brakewoman on the U.S. Women’s Team the same year.
With a season of experience under her belt, she switched to the leadership position of driver and recruited Omeoga and Onwumere as her brakewomen. Their first race on ice was in January 2017. By November, they’d qualified for the 2018 Olympic Games. It was such shocking news that the women even made it to the Ellen show to discuss their achievement.
For a while Adigun was scared the attention surrounding the team’s unconventional journey would create a media circus that would foster resentment among their competitors, most of whom have been training for far longer. “I had to keep reminding myself—and we all as a collective team had to remind ourselves—that it's okay to accept this exposure that's being done because this isn't about us; this is about the bigger picture,” she says. “This is about the people that we're trying to represent and the sport that we're trying to help grow.”
This isn't about us; it's about the bigger picture.
And so when she and her teammates made it to the Opening Ceremony on Feb. 9, it was both a victory lap and the thrilling culmination of a unique process. “This is the first time that the Nigerian flag was ever hoisted in the Winter Olympic Games, which gave it a very special significance,” Adigun says.
"I think that it really made everything come full circle.”
The Nigerian Women’s Bobsled Team will compete on Feb. 20 and 21. Win or lose, the women already feel they’ve accomplished so much—and they hope they inspire others to pursue their dreams as well.
“Across the board we pretty much all agree that the biggest thing that we hope people take from this is that fear factor—that ability to conquer the fear of the unknown,” Adigun says. “You don't have to be the afraid of what you don't understand. Sometimes exactly what needs to happen is that you just need to address it. After doing that, just let the chips fall where they may.”