I’m training for the Olympics in two sports, but chances are you’ve never heard of me. There aren’t a lot of Africans in contention for both the Summer Olympics in swimming and the Winter Olympics in skeleton, the high-speed, high-risk cold weather sport invented in Switzerland. In fact, no athlete has ever represented Nigeria — my birth country — at any Winter Olympics, let alone at back-to-back Summer and Winter Games. Over the next three years, it’s my dream to change that.
If you’re running for president, everything is about 2016. If you’re an Olympic hopeful like me, it’s no different — except your horizon is the 2016 Games in Rio. That’s fewer than 500 days from today. Then the 2018 Winter Games in Seoul are looming after that.
Right about now you might be thinking, Is this guy crazy, or just naive? Probably a little of both. Dreams always start out that way. For The Players’ Tribune, I want to give readers an inside look into my road to the Olympics in two sports.
Here’s how qualifying works. To represent Nigeria in swimming at Rio, I need to make the Olympic “B” qualifying time in the 50 meter freestyle. That magic number is 23.05 seconds, which is 0.76 seconds faster than my best time. I’m confident I can beat that time. If I don’t make the B cut, I can still go to Rio if I’m the fastest Nigerian swimmer in 2016 because every nation is guaranteed two spots in the swimming events at the Olympics. At the London Games in 2012, there was no swimmer from Nigeria. If I had been there, my best time would have won four out of the nine heats in the 50 meter freestyle. Even at the ripe age of 31, I feel pretty good about my odds.
Skeleton has a different qualification process. It’s all about rankings. Points are awarded based on the level of competition — the four major skeleton competitions are the European Cup, North American Cup, Intercontinental Cup, and World Cup — and your finish position. To qualify for Seoul, I need to be ranked in the top 60 in the world — as well as be the top ranked skeleton athlete from Africa. Considering there are only about 100 male skeleton athletes in the world and only one guy from Africa (you’re looking at him), that means that I need to beat roughly one-third of the field. Doable, but not as easy as it sounds.
Skeleton takes a long time to master. Most Olympians have trained for at least eight years. I don’t have that kind of time, so I have to be strategic. Over the next three years, I’ll train on three tracks in North America — Lake Placid, Salt Lake City and Calgary — and get to know them really well. When the qualifying races come to these tracks in the 2017-2018 skeleton season, I can pick up as many points as possible.
To train for two Olympic sports, you have to be a master time manager — particularly when you’re supporting yourself with a full-time job. During the skeleton season, from November to March, I train as often as possible at the skeleton track in the Utah Olympic Park. Maybe you’ve seen the skeleton, but in case not, here’s a quick refresher on how a race goes: you sprint for about 15 meters at the top of an icy track, dive onto an 80 lb. sled made from fiberglass and steel, and zoom headfirst down a mile-long chute at 70-80 mph with no brakes, your hands tucked by your side and your face mere millimeters from the rock-hard ice whizzing by.
Skeleton is a brutal sport, especially for the beginner. The ice makes traction really tricky. And when you’re going as fast as a speeding car, the margin for error is low. The slightest miscalculation on a steer will be instantly and severely punished. Imagine slamming into a guardrail at a high speed wearing nothing but a skin-tight racing suit and a hard plastic helmet, then ricocheting into the opposite wall, back and forth like a human ping-pong ball until you reach the bottom of the track — bloody, bruised and sometimes concussed.
As if that weren’t exhausting enough, you pull four to five Gs — as much as a fighter jet pilot — through some of the curves. After a few runs, your nervous system becomes fried, as if you’ve just stuck a metal fork into a 220-volt outlet. But you haul your sled out of the track, lick your wounds, take a deep breath, and ride up the hill in a repurposed Army truck to do it again. Over and over. There are no shortcuts.
Why did I pick such an extreme sport? I didn’t tell my mother at age 6: “I’m going to be the next great Olympian at the skeleton.” Quite frankly, I chose skeleton because it was my best chance of qualifying for the Winter Olympics. I’d missed the 2004 Summer Olympics by 0.1 seconds in swimming, and I wanted to try again in a different sport. Four of my friends and I had a barbecue one night a few years ago and we looked up the different winter sports on YouTube, one by one. Cross-country skiing was too hard; downhill skiing was too technical, and so on. Then I saw the skeleton. My first thought was, “That’s way too crazy.” My second thought was, “OK, I can do that.”
During the skeleton off-season, I train with a swim team in Atlanta and do punishing strength and conditioning workouts with a personal trainer three times a week. Weekly yoga and massages accelerate my recovery in between training sessions, and I meditate regularly to improve my concentration and relax.
The hardest part of training for the Olympics actually lies outside of the skeleton track and the pool. Try convincing the Olympic Committee of a country that has never seen a snowflake to create its first Winter Olympic sports federation. That’s what I had to do. Somehow I persuaded them, but I’m on my own. I’m the coach, athlete, sponsor, trainer, administrative guy — a one-man Olympic team. The cool part is, if I make it in 2018, I’ll carry the flag for an entire nation.
Not all the barriers to the Olympics are athletic or bureaucratic. Chance plays a big role. Six months before the 2010 Olympics, I was diagnosed with two rare and aggressive blood cancers. Doctors told me that in order to survive, I would need a bone marrow or umbilical cord blood donor. And soon. Then, more bad news: I learned that black patients are underrepresented in the bone marrow registry, which means many die before they can find a match. I was fortunate. A Nigerian mother gave birth to a healthy baby in the US and donated the umbilical cord, which happened to match me. What are the odds?
I have my work cut out for me as a dual Olympic hopeful. But cancer patients — especially those who live in poverty in America and abroad — face even tougher odds. Their struggles for a chance to survive would put any Olympic trial to shame. That’s why, when I’m not training, I spend my time working for the American Cancer Society.
In the coming posts, I’ll explain more about why the Olympics are so important to me, why I’m willing to sacrifice almost anything and even risk my life to qualify. I want to inspire readers of The Players’ Tribune to stay true to their dreams, however crazy and no matter how long the odds. And I want to have fun.
Win or lose, it’s going to be one hell of a ride. Or swim. Take your pick.