IT’S NO SECRET THAT AFRICA IS A POWERFUL AND TRANSFORMATIVE FORCE OF NATURE AND THE LIKES OF NIGERIAN OLYMPIAN, SIMI ADEAGBO PERSONIFY THAT. THE FIRST LADY OF SKELETON IN AFRICA IS BLAZING THE TRAIL AND TURNING HEADS. HER JOURNEY TO THE WINTER OLYMPICS IS PROBABLY ONE OF THE MOST PECULIAR THE WORLD HAS HEARD OF – HAVING QUALIFIED IN LESS THAN 4 MONTHS OF DISCOVERING THE SPORT OF SKELETON. HER HEART IS SET ON ELEVATING AFRICA, SHARING WITH THE WORLD THE EXCELLENCE AND POTENTIAL SHE HAS SEEN WITHIN HERSELF AND OTHERS. ALONG WITH SPORTS, AFRICA’S YOUTH EMPOWERMENT, PARTICULARLY WOMEN EMPOWERMENT IS A STRONG FOCUS FOR ADEAGBO. THIS YEAR SHE BECAME A MEMBER OF THE FIRST CLASS OF THE OBAMA FOUNDATION LEADERS: AFRICA PROGRAM. WE TALK TO HER ABOUT THE ROAD SHE’S TRAVELLED THAT’S LED HER HERE.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO SKELETON RACING?
I initially was interested in the sport of bobsled, when I got to know about the Nigerian Women’s bobsled team around the end of 2016. I saw online and was really inspired by the team’s quest to make history as the first African bobsled team to compete at the Winter Olympics. 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 2017, 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. From there, I began the quest to make Olympic history as the first Africa and Black woman to compete in the sport of Skeleton at the Olympics.
ACCORDING TO CNN, YOU ‘TOUCHED A SLED FOR THE FIRST TIME IN SEPTEMBER 2017. BY JANUARY 2018, SHE HAD QUALIFIED FOR THE WINTER OLYMPICS.’ CAN YOU SHARE MORE ABOUT THIS EXPERIENCE?
My path to the Olympics was very unconventional as I qualified for the Olympics just about 100 days after I discovered the sport of Skeleton. At the beginning of my journey, I asked myself two very simple questions that ended up changing the course of history. “Why Not Me? And Why Not Now?” I knew that somebody had to make history and break this barrier in sport and I didn’t see any reason why it couldn’t be me and it couldn’t be now. Over those few months, I worked hard to qualify for the Olympics. For me being new to the sport, the learning curve was really steep, and I tried to just take it one day at a time. I challenged myself to really see what I could do and see what’s possible and I eventually qualified for the Olympics and made history.
YOU WERE BORN AND RAISED IN NORTH AMERICA, AND YOU’VE ALSO LIVED IN NIGERIA. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND? HOW DID ALL THE TRAVELING ADD TO YOUR CHARACTER AND WHO YOU ARE TODAY?
I’m a true Afropolitan – of Nigerian decent, born in Canada, schooled in the US and now living and working in South Africa. All of these experiences shaped my world view and deepened my love for the continent of Africa. Africa is a beautiful continent full of great talent, resources, resilience, innovation and beauty. I want to change the conversation and narrative around Africa. I want people to see the greatness in Africa that I see every day. And I wanted to reshape what people have come to expect from Africa. Ultimately I wanted to inspire the next generation to dream without limits.
AS YOU GREW UP AND LIVED ABROAD, HOW DID YOU MAINTAIN A CONNECTION TO YOUR ROOTS?
As I grew up and lived abroad, I was always connected to Nigerian culture. I know the food, the music, and the language. I think there is a great kind of mix in this new generation – like you are Nigerian with a bit of South African or a Nigerian with a bit of American – and this represents a new generation of Nigerians. For instance, my grandfather is from Oke-Imesi, a small village in Nigeria… I may never have lived there but I understand where he came from and I am also blending that now with the new things I know from South Africa, Canada and the US and it still makes me a Nigerian. That is what is great about this new generation of Africans.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MISCONCEPTIONS THAT PEOPLE HAVE OF SKELETON AND HOW DO YOU THINK THIS CAN CHANGE?
People think Skeleton is very dangerous because it looks so scary. Although the sport is very daring, it is relatively safe. This misconception can only change through people having more exposure to the sport. Through my Olympic experience, I’ve been able to shed more light on the sport and help people understand it better.
YOU WERE SELECTED FOR THE INAUGURAL OBAMA FOUNDATION LEADERS: AFRICA PROGRAM, CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE?
I’m excited to be a member of the first class of the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa Program! I applied for the program seeking to continue to break down barriers and drive positive change in my community, country and continent. I’m learning from and working with an impressive group of young people from across Africa to create local and global change. We came together in Johannesburg, South Africa in a five-day convening that ran from July 14 through July 18 and included plenary sessions, problem-solving workshops, and skill building trainings that helped young emerging leaders drive positive change throughout Africa. The convening also included a town hall meeting with President Obama where he heard about our experiences and the work we’re doing. Following the South Africa convening, the Leaders have remained connected to the Foundation and one another via an online platform where we engage in topical discussions, access leadership and training resources, and participate in trainings and webinars led by experts and industry leaders.
HOW DO YOU TRAIN FOR A WINTER SPORT IN SOUTH AFRICA? AND WHAT’S YOUR TRAINING SCHEDULE LIKE?
Yes. I live in Johannesburg. When I’m training in Johannesburg, It’s all about staying in peak physical condition and trying to get as strong, powerful and fast as possible. I train myself, doing Olympic lifts (cleans and snatches), plyometrics (explosive jumping moves including variations on box jumps), sprints and core-strengthening work. I train 5 days a week for 2-3 hours a day. It’s all about getting more explosive and quick off the block, and stronger and faster overall.
WHAT’S YOUR EARLIEST HAIR MEMORY?
Growing up as a Nigerian immigrant in the US, I have vivid memories of being teased about my “nappy” hair and struggled to see anything good about my kinky, course hair in its natural state. Lyrics like “tougher than Nigerian hair” featured in Lil’ Wayne’s song A Milli also reinforced this belief. This belief only started to become unwired when I moved to South Africa a few years ago. Here, I started to see the beauty in what grew naturally out of my head. I was exposed to a broader scope of the standard of beauty which helped me celebrate my beauty with pride. Now, I hope to help reshape the standard of beauty for the next generation of girls.
YOUR HAIR IS ALWAYS STYLED AND SUPER DIVERSE. CAN YOU SHARE YOUR HAIR JOURNEY WITH US?
I’ve been on a personal journey to embrace my God-given hair. I thought relaxing my hair was the best option to maintain the standard of beauty that I was constantly bombarded with living in the US. When I moved to South Africa, I was exposed to a broader scope of the standard of beauty, which included women who had the same kinky, course hair that I do and celebrated it with pride. As I spent more time in this new environment, my perspective on beauty became more inclusive to reflect people that looked like me. I also began to understand more about the potentially damaging effects of harsh chemical relaxers and had more access to information on how to care for my natural hair. Through the process of having visibility to a broader scope of beauty, being inspired by others and being equipped with knowledge to care for my natural hair, I eventually stopped relaxing my hair and started embracing my God-given hair.
WHAT’S YOUR HAIR REGIMEN, ESPECIALLY WHEN TRAINING/COMPETING?
I like to have fun with my hair, be creative and try new styles. Especially with braids as I think they showcase African beauty and are very convenient when I’m training/competing. When I’m competing, I wear my now signature green and white beads at the ends of my braids. The beads represent another piece of Nigeria and they’re also a nod to the Williams sisters’ (Venus and Serena) early style. I loved Venus and Serena as a little girl and had posters of them on my bedroom walls. They were blazing trails as young athletes in a sport where many people didn’t look like them. I pay homage to that legacy by wearing the beads.
IN AN INTERVIEW WITH OKAYAFRICA, YOU SITE MARKETING AND BRANDING EXECUTIVE BOZOMA ST. JOHN AND ACTRESS, WRITER, DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER ISSA RAE AS MOTIVATORS. CAN YOU TELL US WHY THESE TWO WOMEN INSPIRE YOU?
Bozoma St. John and Issa Rae are creating their own unique paths in business and entertainment. It’s inspiring to see them using their gifts to build careers on their own terms and get in spaces like tech and film, where Black women have been severely under represented. It’s awesome to see these strong, smart, vivacious, courageous, beautiful and ambitious women unapologetically blazing trails in their respective fields.
CAN YOU COMPLETE THE SENTENCE: EACH TIME I JUMP ON MY SLEIGH..?
Each time I jump on my sleigh, I want to show up in a way that shows people just who I am. That I can do anything. And that the future is female and Africa.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU?
I want to continue to see what my potential can be in the sport of skeleton. I’m currently training for the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games with hopes of winning Africa’s first medal at the Winter Olympics. I’m also continuing to use the platform I’ve been given to inspire others. I’m an ambassador for Malala Fund, the organisation founded by girls’ education activist and Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai. I’m also nurturing the SimiSleighs Leadership and Sports Master Class which is a programme I developed to motivate young girls on the continent to unlock their own potential through leadership, life and sports skills. My Olympic journey showed me that there are no limits to what’s possible and that I can make a significant difference in this world. I plan on continuing to break down barriers and create the future that I want to see through using my unique gifts to make a significant contribution and leave a legacy.
Photographer: Obakeng Molepe
Hair and make-up: Bassie Queen
Supplied image: Antonia Steyn