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Grappling For Gold

In West Africa, cash-strapped Odunayo Adekuoroye is relying on hard work, and heart, to win a medal.

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On the August 5, 10,500 athletes from 206 countries will march into the Maracanã stadium in Rio for the opening ceremony of the biggest sporting event on the planet, the Olympics. Among the hopefuls looking to take home one of the 306 gold medals is Nigerian freestyle wrestler, Odunayo Adekuoroye. The 22-year–old woman managed to clinch one of the available slots at this year’s competition by winning bronze in the 53kg weight category at the World Championships in Las Vegas, United States. Weeks away from the big day and there is uncertainty in the air about Nigeria’s Olympic prospects.

“We always have issues with funding especially in the first quarter of the year. The minister of sports has been in touch with the federation and they have already released funds and the athletes are in very good spirits. We are hoping issues of tickets, and athletes not being able to arrive at the event this time, will not arise,” says Daniel Igali, President of the Nigeria Wrestling Federation.

Igali is also the chairman of the technical commission of the Nigeria Olympic Committee and a former Olympic gold medalist for Canada. He is the coach of Adekuoroye and is optimistic about her prospects in Rio.

“Last year, in all able-bodied sports, my wrestler was the only athlete in the Nigerian team that won a bronze medal in the qualifiers so we have very high hopes that she will medal at the Olympics this year and, if she does, that will be the first time any Nigerian will be winning a medal at the Olympics in wrestling.”

Nigeria failed to win a medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Igali is determined to change this record in future competitions, however, he needs to overcome several hurdles first.

“Our outreach programs at the youth level have been non-existent and so it has been a big challenge trying to get some of the younger athletes to take over from the older ones at the national level. We need to have wrestling programs in most schools, from primary and secondary levels and also at the university and tertiary level. The national university competition in Nigeria still does not have wrestling,” says Igali.

To further exacerbate the situation, athletes in the sports do not get the chance to sufficiently compete during the year to prepare them for big events like the Olympics.

“At the younger level, an athlete in a competent sport needs to compete at least every month and at the elite level at least once every three months. Last year we only had our elite athletes competing twice in the whole year,” says Igali.

Adekuoroye, who won a gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, shares his sentiments.

“Most of my opponents have competed about four times this year and I have just competed once and I don’t know what to do, but that is Nigeria for you.”

Adekuoroye fell into the sport by accident.

“I was into athletics before but I was cheated out of my position so I started crying. My coach at the time saw me and asked me if I wanted to travel with the team and take part in wrestling instead. So, just because I wanted to travel, I followed him and when I got there I won gold and that is how I started wrestling,” she says.

Adekuoroye switched from a 400-meter athlete to a wrestler. She could not compete in London 2012 because her weight was just below the required 53kg. This year, she is determined to prove she has what it takes to win a medal.

“I am not scared about Rio, I believe I am not representing Nigeria alone but also Christians all over the world and so I believe with prayer and training my God will not let me down. I have good coaches as well and I don’t want to let them down,” says Adekuoroye.

Wrestling has given a new lease of life to the young athlete.

“All I have is wrestling. I was not born with a silver spoon but because of wrestling, I have something to eat and even give others. I am the provider for my family and as a result I will continue to put everything into the sport to make sure I continue to succeed.”

It is estimated that it takes about 10 years of proper grooming for an athlete to achieve Olympic gold. One does not only need talent and hard work, but also the right support system in place, from physiotherapy to a chiropractor as well as experienced coaches. In the absence of these essential ingredients, the Nigerian patriotic zeal and dogged determination has brought Adekuoroye this far. Could she have enough to change the fortunes of the nation in Rio 2016. Nigeria hopes so.

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