Nigerian social media has been agog with news about our very own (of course I had to claim her) Chierika Ukogu, a Stanford graduate who is also the first Nigerian to compete in rowing at the Olympics. Apparently, Chierika is a self-sponsored athlete (side eyes to whoever in government is responsible for ensuring people like Chierika get sponsorship) and she trained with the US team before the Olympics. Chierika had a dream and she did everything to succeed at it, ignoring the lack of support from her own country. Chierika made it to the semi-finals of the women’s rowing event, and I am so proud of her for reasons you will understand shortly.
Rowing isn’t popular in Nigeria (correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m sure Nigerians have never paid as much attention to rowing as we have since #ChierikaUkogu trended on twitter), and we are more focused on football or athletics, so maybe I should chill on the government bashing and hope that Chierika’s achievement will expand our mindset in terms of the different sports at Olympic games.
When I saw Chierika’s story on the internet, my mind flashed back real quick to my experience with rowing at Cambridge and my first-hand experience of how tough rowing is, helps me appreciate Chierika even more because she has the discipline and strength I clearly lacked during my short stint with rowing. As a Nigerian girl, and a true global citizen, I decided to immerse myself in the culture of Cambridge, and one of the big cultures of Cambridge is rowing. So like a jolly just come (JJC), I decided to join the Clare College Boat Club with absolutely no rowing experience and very little swimming experience.
Rowing is taken very seriously at Cambridge. In fact, I daresay it’s taken about as seriously as academics. There is intense competition among the colleges at Cambridge, and the competition between Oxford and Cambridge in rowing is the stuff of legend. It’s a very very serious thing oh. At Cambridge, rowing is taken as importantly as Nigerians take football, and this is saying a lot, considering the fact that there is typically no traffic in Lagos when a major football match is on.
Anyway, back to my story. I thought rowing was cute, and I also thought it would be a great way to firm up my arms
(also known as Christian Mother. If you know, you know). Oh how wrong I was. Rowing was not easy as there were so many things to learn and understand. From carrying the boat out, the different commands, exercise session (ergs),getting my trainers wet, to changing shoes in the boat, there were a lot of things to learn. I realised real quick that rowing was going to be a huge commitment. I was committed to training at least two to three times a week (that’s because I was a novice) but the top rowers trained almost every day. This training must happen whether it’s raining, it’s cold or you just don’t feel like getting out of bed (I’m talking about rowing in a team). I developed serious respect for rowers because the commitment level was insane! I was so bad at rowing, that the poor coach Anton had to give me special lessons to ensure that I don’t capsize the boat and give the amazingly bright and beautiful Clare College ladies an impromptu dip in the River Cam (although falling into the river was not an uncommon thing).
I have a few regrets, though. I wish I stuck to rowing a bit more. Once the weather became wet and I had to get up at 5:30 am to take a 30-minute walk to the Boat House (did I mention in the rain?), I knew rowing was not for me. I could hear my mother’s voice ringing in my head saying “Is this why the Queen of England sent you to do your masters? You are rowing up and down the whole place and you cannot swim! Má pa ara è” Lol! Jokes, jokes, I’m sure she would have encouraged me.
Chierika made me nostalgic so I’m sharing pictures of my rowing experiences. I also want to use this opportunity to celebrate her. I’m typically not a quitter, but I quit rowing, so it means so much that she’s beaming the spotlight on this sport. Imagine the possibilities in the next ten years if the government, particularly in the Niger Delta region, invests in rowing facilities.
Laugh at me all you want, but I’ll still leave you with a few lessons. Whenever you are somewhere new, try something new (like I tried rowing, and I’m writing about it over a year after). Also, don’t be afraid to chase your dream. Chase that dream, even if it means self-sponsoring to the Olympics. Chase that dream, even if it means you are the only one on that path. Chase that dream, even if it means you have to train with a different group of people. Chase that dream like there’s nothing else to chase, and maybe like Chierika, you might win the hearts of millions around the world.
Jolly just come– A novice
Má pa ara è– Don’t kill yourself (Yoruba Language)