Nigeria's Bobsled and Skeleton Federation is already overflowing with black girl magic, but it just got some more. Former track star Simidele Adeagbo is vying to represent the green-white-green and the continent at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. To do so she must snag her fifth qualifying race this week in Lake Placid, New York.
Skeleton is a single rider sport, where an athlete rides a skeleton sled down a frozen track at high speeds while lying face down —whoa! Just like Nigeria's bobsled team, this is the 36-year-old's first go at the sport, but she's determined to use this experience to inspire young Africans to excel at whatever they do.
We caught up with Adeagbo before the holidays and learned how she got involved with skeleton, how she fits training into a busy professional life and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Antoinette Isama for OkayAfrica: Can you touch on your background a bit?
Simidele Adeagbo: I lived in Nigeria until I was about 6-years-old and then grew up between the U.S. and Canada. Now, I currently live in Johannesburg, South Africa, and have been there for the last 4 1/2 years.
Growing up I've always been an athlete, loved sports—been passionate about sports. I played a lot of different sports, but I settled in track and field. That's where I really excelled. At the University of Kentucky, I did track and field and was named a four-time All-American—pursuing it after college as well. I just nearly missed making the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team in the event of triple jump back in 2008. After that, I kind of just moved on with life, moved to South Africa, and was kind of in a different space in life.
How did you get involved with skeleton?
I got to know about the bobsled team around the end of 2016. I think it was actually the OkayAfrica article that I saw online and was really inspired by it. I thought what the ladies were doing was a really awesome thing—in terms of being the ones to blaze this trail in a winter sport that has never been done before for Nigeria and also for the continent. I immediately wanted to be a part of it, so I reached out and kept in touch with them.
In August of this year, there was a tryout in Houston, Texas, so I made the long trip there for the weekend and tried out. I was invited back to a camp that was in September. I went to camp and got to know skeleton, which was not the original plan because I knew more about bobsled, and there's been a history of track and field athletes that make the transition from track and field to bobsled. That's where I got to know about skeleton and I thought that sport was also equally interesting to me because I could still use my talents to serve my country. I've been learning the sport ever since and now I'm just one race away.
How has your learning process been leading up to your last qualifying race? Have you experienced any challenges, especially since you're new to the sport?
The sport is something that I'm still learning every day. I think even when you become an "expert," you're always going to be learning. If you get to a stage where you're not learning, then you should probably move on.
For me being new to the sport, the learning curve has been really steep, and I've tried to just take it one day at a time. I have some coaches who have been helping me, and each day I try to see how I can improve and get better and better. I've done a lot in a short period of time already doing four races, and I've been at three different tracks. I'm challenging myself to really see what I can do, see what's possible, and to qualify.
How has your community of family members and friends reacted to this transition into skeleton?
They have overall really been supportive. I have a great community of friends and family that support me, and are behind me 100 percent, and are encouraging me and cheering me on.
I think the initial reaction is first of all, "What the heck is skeleton?" You know? A lot of people are not familiar with the sport. Some of them are a bit concerned because people think that it looks really scary. And then, I just let them know, "Hey, no. It actually can be fun."
I also read that you currently work at Nike in Joburg. How have you been able to balance training and keeping up with your professional career?
It's definitely not easy, but Nike is a company that supports athletes. I just happen to be an athlete that works in an office. They've been really supportive of this quest from the very beginning, and I just work with the team to see how we can all manage it together.
It's also all about time management. For me, I need both to be really myself. I need the challenge physically to make sure I'm pushing my athletic side. And then, intellectually I love being in the office and be able to do a lot of the great things that we do as a brand, but they're all interconnected. Nike is a brand, like I said, that really is all about serving the athlete. Every day when I go to work is about how we can inspire people to do their best whatever that is for them as an athlete, so the two are very linked and go hand-in-hand.
In the wake of 17-year-old Ghanaian-born Maame Biney qualifying for the USA Olympic speedskating team, I think it's cool that we're seeing more African women lead the way in representing our communities in unconventional spaces. If you had to give advice to young African girls who have become interested in winter sports, what are some things that you would advise them to consider?
I came across it online as well and I thought that that was really, really cool. Living on the continent, there's so many challenges that face young people today, young females especially, so the fact that they can see these female athletes who are just doing it unapologetically and leaving a legacy is great because for me, part of this is really about how we redefine Africa, and what people think about Africa, and what's possible. We show up in a way that shows people just who we are. We can really do anything.
I think that's the encouragement that I would share with any young person is that you define who you want to be, and you create the future. The questions that I would ask them to ask themselves are, "Why not you?" And, "Why not now?" Those are the same questions I asked myself at the beginning of this—"Somebody has to make history, why not me? And, why not now?"
Why not use all of the gifts that I have to inspire people, so I'm not the first and last? Hopefully, the idea is that this opens doors for future generations of African athletes. Don't limit yourself, the possibilities are really limitless. Create your lane however you want to do it. It's really up to you.