Afraid of rollercoasters, Ngozi Onwumere didn’t know what to expect as she threw herself into a bobsled and hurtled for the first time down the icy track in Park City, Utah. But as she and driver Seun Adigun slid to a stop past the finish line that day in January 2017, the pair had completed the first official run of the Nigerian women’s bobsled team.
Soon they will be racing at the Winter Olympics.
Adigun is the team’s driver in every sense of the word. The 2012 Olympian founded the Bobsled and Skeleton Federation of Nigeria to expand opportunities for athletes like herself to represent Nigeria on the world stage. The nation’s first Olympic bobsled team also includes Akuoma Omeoga, the team’s second brakeman. All three are first-generation Nigerian Americans who competed for U.S. universities in sprinting and hurdles.
In the London 2012 Summer Games, Adigun represented Nigeria in athletics. There, she ran against former collegiate competitors on Team USA, like Lolo Jones, who later joined the U.S. women’s bobsled team. A few years after the London Games, Adigun joined other former track athletes and began training with the U.S. bobsled team. She liked it so much she decided to go further.
“I knew this was something I had to do,” Adigun told Nigerian website She Leads Africa. “The sport of bobsled was looking to grow and the continent of Africa had never been represented in the sport.”
When she asked U.S. head coach Brian Shimer for guidance on creating a Nigerian team to compete at the Olympics, he offered his support and told her, “If anyone is going to be able to do it, it’s you.”
Living in Houston, where it snows as seldom as it does in Nigeria, Adigun built a regulation-sized bobsled on wheels to use for practice on an athletics track. The sled, named the Maeflower in honor of Adigun’s late sister Mae, helped the team train and propelled them forward.
The women posted videos of them building and later training with the Maeflower to a fundraising webpage that became invaluable to their Olympic journey. They surpassed their initial goal of $75,000 and won fans from all over the world.
The funds and outside support helped the team travel to Nigeria for a “homecoming tour” in April. They visited schools and did interviews to introduce themselves, promote bobsledding, and explain that they were serious about taking Nigeria to the Winter Olympics. They even showed off their no-snow training with a replica of the Maeflower.
While the team’s unconventional story has made them popular figures, the women have worked hard to prove themselves on the racetrack.
When the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation announced the qualifying teams for Pyeongchang, Nigeria was ranked No. 45. This is an impressive accomplishment for the team’s first season, with little more than a year in training. By comparison, Team USA driver Jamie Poser ranked 49th her first season as a driver in 2009, and she went on to win bronze at the Sochi Olympics five years later.
Regardless of where Team Nigeria finishes at the Olympics, its members feel they have already won.
“This is my gift for my country,” Adigun said in an interview with NBC. “Success would be a legacy that would allow others to emulate my path.”