Many athletes head to the Olympics thinking all about gold. For Chierika Ukogu, a 23-year-old Nigerian rower, simply getting to Rio is an incredible feat. She’ll soon be the first rower to ever represent Nigeria in the Olympics, and had to put off medical school and self-fund her trip to do it. The chance to win a medal is simply a bonus on top of what Ukogu’s already accomplished.
Just suiting up for Nigeria as a rower in the Olympics, which Ukogu will do in the single scull event, is a special thing. The country only recently set up its Nigeria Rowing, Canoe and Sailing Federation. The hope was to have Nigerian athletes competing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but nobody had been aiming to participate in 2016. Well, nobody except Ukogu.
When she emailed the Nigerian Olympic Committee a few years ago asking about representing the country as a rower in Rio, she got ignored.
“Just emailing them and telling them, ‘Hey, I want to do this,’ meant nothing,” said Ukogu in a recent feature by Philly.com. “They ignored me because I didn’t have a plan.”
Now she’s preparing to be Nigeria’s first Olympic rower, and it’s not because she followed a traditional plan. A dual citizen of the U.S. and Nigeria who’s based in Philadelphia, Ukogu’s path to Rio has to be among the most unconventional. Many Olympic athletes are trained from a young age, with countless dollars poured into maximizing their potential. Ukogu is entirely self-funded and had to put off medical school for two years to pursue her dream.
When it comes to travel, training, equipment, coaching and whatever else goes into becoming an Olympic athlete, Ukogu has been footing the bill. She has no financial backing from Nigeria. Instead, money saved from a full-time job and a GoFundMe page have provided Ukogu the resources, such as training and an actual boat, to become one of the world’s best rowers. She’s trained at Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia, one of the most prominent boat clubs in the country.
“She’s earned this,” said John Parker, her coach at Vesper. “When she first said she wanted to row in the Olympics, to row for Vesper, I said she wasn’t good enough. … But she’s responded really fast. This whole year has been a steep learning curve.”
Ukogu rowed in high school and in college at Stanford University, but didn’t start thinking about the Olympics until four years ago. That’s when she saw another African rower, Hamadou Djibo Issaka of Niger, get mocked after a poor showing at the 2012 Games in London. The International Olympic Committee had decided to open up a spot in the single scull competition — the Olympic individual rowing event — for a country with a developing program. Issaka won the spot, but finished in last in London. Ukogu was so bothered by the way her fellow African rower was treated that she decided to make the Olympics a life goal.
“I was so riled up by watching him [and] people coming for him,” Ukogu said. “I didn’t want this to be the representation that people have of African rowers in general. I said, ‘I have dual citizenship. Yeah, I’m going to do this.'”
And what Ukogu established after committing herself to rowing was that she’s good enough. In October, she earned her spot in Rio by finishing third at the ISA African Qualification Regatta. In June, she quit her job as a research coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania to focus on training for six hours per day. Even now, after so much training, she’s still learning and improving.
“There’s a certain strategy to rowing in a single that I’m still starting to grasp,” she said. “It’s more of a mental game than an eight, when you have a coxswain dictating what to do and that allows you to shut off your brain.”
Ukogu isn’t expected to win a medal, but she knows that simply wearing Nigeria’s green and white on the water in Rio will mean something to young people everywhere. She’s made incredible sacrifices in order to accomplish something nobody had done before. With or without gold, that’s something she hopes people will be proud of.
“If I show people that nothing is impossible, if I can spread that message, I’ve done my job,” she said. “A lot of people say, ‘How do you do all these things? How are you so determined?’ I know being in the U.S. has given me amazing opportunities, and I have to take advantage of them, not only for me, but for other people.”