PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — There’s something to be said for having a dream so insane, so outlandish, so far outside the realm of possibility that you just throw yourself into it and see what happens.
For Seun Adigun, a hurdler who represented Nigeria in the 2012 Summer Olympics, the dream started simple: figure a way to get back to the Olympics one way or another. But the dream soon blossomed into a legitimate movement, one that could inspire generations of Nigerian athletes.
Adigun, a former sprinter for the University of Houston who has dual American-Nigerian citizenship, first followed in the steps of other track athletes by joining the U.S. bobsled team; track athletes make for ideal pushers. But somewhere along the line, she hit on an even grander idea: rather than joining the well-established, well-funded U.S. team, why not make history by bringing the first bobsled team not just to a country, but an entire continent?
Thus was born the Nigerian bobsled team. You can make the easy comparisons to Jamaica’s entry — where exactly does one train for the bobsled in Jamaica or Nigeria? — but in both cases, the competitors are absolutely serious, both about their own runs and about what they hope to inspire in others.
Sending a team to the Olympics requires money, lots of it, and Adigun — who jumped full-time into graduate studies after London — wasn’t exactly swimming in the kind of cash necessary to start a movement. So two days before Thanksgiving in 2016, she launched a GoFundMe page to handle, well, everything involved in getting an Olympic team rolling. Here’s what the fundraising campaign — which hit its goal of $150,000 — was designed to finance, from the page:
It’s obvious from that list that Adigun was beginning at the very start of the process, no shortcuts and no head-starts. She talked two fellow former Houston teammates, Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga, into joining the crusade. She persuaded skeptical Nigerian sports officials that hers was a legitimate endeavor. And she built her first bobsled herself, naming it the “MaeFlower” after her sister, Mae Mae, who had died in a car accident in 2009.
From there, it was just a matter of learning a discipline that none of them had ever attempted, in weather conditions they’d rarely experienced, with homemade equipment. Simple enough, right? The three teammates brought both explosive strength and tactical precision from the track; their greatest challenge, Adigun laughed, was just putting on enough weight that they would make weight as bobsledders.
They trained all over the United States and Canada, primarily at Lake Placid, site of the 1980 Olympics. They completed five qualifying runs, which is a hell of a lot harder than you’d think. They began a national PR run that included a segment on “Ellen,” a Visa sponsorship, and a Beats By Dre campaign.
And they went back to Nigeria, where they received heroes’ welcomes and launched a plan to get Nigerian athletes into a bobsled pipeline to help grow the sport across the country. “Going back to Nigeria meant so much,” Adigun says. “The reception was amazing. Just to be home before coming here, and feeling how excited everyone was, felt so amazing.”
To hear Adigun speak is to get a sense of how she pulled off this mad dream. She’s direct yet passionate, both pragmatic and optimistic. “We speak a lot about creating a timeline, a plan for execution and then hitting milestones along that plan,” Adigun says. “The plan almost seemed overzealous, to where everything was just execution, execution, execution. Now that we’re actually here it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. Did our dream just become a reality?’ ”
Training at the Olympic Sliding Centre begins on Saturday the 17th, with the medal round slated for four days later. It’s highly unlikely Nigeria will bring home a medal, but that’s not really the point this time around: just getting here is.
“At this point now, success is something that runs on a continuum; it’ something that you can achieve daily,” Adigun says. “But at the end of the day, we’re competitors. We’re going to show the world the best we have, and that’s what brought us here.”