100 Days to PyeongChang
On a blistering cold November day in Whistler, Canada, Simidele Adeagbo stood atop one of the most threatening skeleton tracks in the world.
Elite athletes have reached frightening speeds at the Whistling Sliding Center. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili died in a training crash going at 89 miles per hour, according to reports.
But a determined Adeagbo who had only touched her first skeleton sled in September was going to try it anyway. The 36-year-old Nigerian was at her first IBSF training camp and her major goal on her first run was not to scream.
I dont want to look like a crazy person, she thought.
Since skeleton is a white-dominated sport, she worried that people would think she was some strange African woman, riding the track like a roller coaster. This wasnt Cool Runnings 2. Adeagbo was serious.
After a few breaths, Adeagbo sprinted down the lane and landed flat on her sled, head first (as one does in skeleton). Despite the fact that her heart was beating out of her chest, things seemed to be going just fine.
When suddenly her sled spun around.
Her feet led her down the track and she could no longer see where she was.
Her heart beat faster.
She prayed to God not to die.
Do not scream. Whatever you do, do not scream.
And luckily, Adeagbo crossed the finish line without a bruise to speak of. Later, one of the coaches pulled her aside and warned her never to do that again. If she ever spun around like that on another run, its safer to roll off the sled and let it go, they said. Adeagbo would also learn that it takes about eight years for a skeleton athlete to reach an elite level of performance.
But at that point, Adeagbo knew she didnt have time for mastery. She had only started the sport about three months before the kickoff of 2018 Winter Games. Since that day, Adeagbo wanted nothing more than to be the first female skeleton athlete in Africas Olympic history.
She had 100 days to make it happen.
10 Years of Dedication, 10 Years of Retirement
Every athlete has their reason for starting such a daring sport the root of why they do what they do.
For Adeagbo, the seed of her aspirations stemmed from a fallen dream.
On June 27, 2008, at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, the 26-year-old was competing for her spot on the U.S. Olympic track and field team.
The four-time NCAA All-American and triple jump record holder for the University of Kentucky had been preparing for this moment since she was a high schooler. Years after she graduated in 2003, she packed up her life and moved across the country to get the best training.
I had relocated to San Diego and worked with a new coach, Adeagbo told the Shadow League. I lived and worked at the Olympic training for two years in hopes of making it. I literally dedicated a decade of my life on this one goal.
So back in Eugene, when the time came for her to make first jump attempt, Adeagbo knew she was ready. Unfortunately, by the time the finals had ended fate had not worked in her favor.
With her farthest jump at 44.8 feet (13.67 meters), Adeagbo had missed the qualifying distance by a mere 8-inches.
I knew there was nothing else I could’ve done, said Adeagbo. I literally did everything that I could’ve done to prepare and … it just didn’t work out for me.
Devastated, the young Nigerian took some time to reflect and decided that she was hanging up her track spikes for good. She spent 10 years thinking that shed just be a regular person who hit the gym every now and then.
But in 2016, Adeagbo read an article that would change her life in a way she couldn’t ever have imagined.
1 Woman and Her Sled
That December, Adeagbo was scrolling through the internet when she came across a story that she couldnt get out of her mind.
It was about three Nigerian female athletes who were teaming together to become Africas first bobsled team. Adeagbos eyes widened. The inner-athlete in her saw something that she wanted to be apart of.
I wanted to make history and be a person who inspired others, she said. I wanted to represent my country and show people the endless possibilities that can come from a nation like Nigeria.
She noticed that the Nigerian women might need a fourth person to help push their sleigh. The only problem was womens bobsled only requires two people (contrary to the men’s four-person sled). The Nigerian team already had enough athletes, plus an alternate.
It wasnt until 2017 that Adeagbo found another route to reawaken her Olympic dreams. On Instagram, she saw the Nigerian Bobsled and Skeleton Federation was hosting in Houston, Texas and she went for it.
When she realized that this was something that she wanted to do, she surprised her parents with her newfound aspiration.
When I started sharing pictures of something called skeleton, I could see that my mom was uneasy, Adeagbo said. My parents werent sure what to make of it. But I think they wanted to be as supportive as possible.
They gave me the Nigerian answer like, Well keep you with prayer.
She may have needed it.
The moment that Adeagbo decided to embark on this path, she was in for a lot of twists, turns, and bumps along the way literally. All she had to do to qualify for the Games was to race in five competitions during the 2017-2018 season. Didnt matter if she won or came in last place. Seems simple, right?
But that doesnt count all the days training negative 20-degree weather, traveling alone to faraway training facilities. All the crashes, the bruises, the growing pains of learning something new. To stay on track, Adeagbo needed to remember her vision.
Its not an easy sport to stay motivated for, said Adeagbo. For me, I always had to keep my focus on the bigger purpose. So even the times I was standing at the top of the track just scared to death, I just kept focused on what this accomplishment would mean.
Luckily, one coach noticed her innate drive and raw talent. After her fourth race in Park City, Utah, Adeagbo met Nick Vienneau who was also coaching Jamaican skeleton athlete Anthony Watson. When she and Vienneau agreed to work together, Adeagbo said that her game changed completely.
Before I met him, I was just trying to survive, said Adeagbo. But he helped to switch me from a survival mentality to actually learning the fundamentals. He believed that I could so that helped me to believe in myself.
That belief carried her through her final qualifying races. In her fifth and six competitions, she finished in 3rd place to make the podium. What’s even better: She stamped her ticket to her first-ever Olympic Games.
She was going to PyeongChang.
20th Place Has Its Podium
If you ask Adeagbo what it was like to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Games, shell drop you a Biggie lyric: It was all a dream.
I’m still waiting for someone to wake me up, she said.
High up on a mountain covered in white snow, colors danced everywhere in the Olympic Village: Flags red, green, blue black and gold from all over the world fluttered and flapped in the wind, tickling the ears. Eight nations from Africa had qualified for the 2018 Games Kenya, Morocco, Ghana, Madagascar, South Africa, Togo, Eritrea, and Nigeria. Each country proudly walked the opening ceremony knowing that they had defied the odds. Throughout the coming days, Adeagbo made an effort to say hello to every fellow African she met. She understood how much that had overcome to get here.
But more than anything, Adeagbo was focused on giving her all on race day.
The moment she got into the starting blocks, she began to feel the pressure.
I could feel the weight of the opportunity, she said. But not in a way that weighed me down, but in a way that lifted me up.
The energy here was so different than anything she had ever experienced in the past few months. Adeagbo was used to going to freezing, desolate tracks where most sports fans wouldnt dare venture. Back then, quiet was deafening. But in PyeongChang the atmosphere resounded with the song of cheers, cow belles, whistles … and beneath it all was the subtle prayer in Yoruba from her mother somewhere in the stands.
Oluwa mi ranlowo o. Olorun mi ranlowo o. Olodumare ranlowo o. Alagbala iyanu ranlowo o.
My Lord help her, My God help her, The Supreme God help her, The miraculous God help her.
With that, Adeagbo had all the momentum she needed.
Well folks, it’s official…Simidele Adeagbo is in the record books! She did an awesome job in her Olympic debut! Watching from the start live was pretty amazing too! Sleigh, Simi, Sleigh!!!!…
In fact, the next two days went so quickly everything felt like a blur. All of her runs went smoothly, but shell never forget how she felt after she crossed the finish line for the last time. She thought about all of those hours she spent in the gym, all of the afternoons training in freezing cold conditions, all the crashes and bruises. Everything came down to that one competition. Those four 50-second runs. Then suddenly it was all over.
I just threw my helmet off and put my hands up, waving to everybody, she said. I just remember feeling sheer joy and happiness.
By looking at the grin on her face, you wouldnt guess that she finished 20th place that she was the slowest athlete at the competition.
None of that really mattered because Adeagbo had achieved her goal.
She had officially made history.
2022 and Beyond
Its only been seven months since Adeagbo competed at the Winter Games, but her life has radically changed since she embarked on this journey.
For one thing, the young Nigerian has now fallen in love with skeleton. Adeagbo wants to continue to train and see where the sport takes her.
In that short time I competed, I learned that I have a lot of potential, she said. So we’re going to keep going at it as long as we are having fun. Who knows? Beijing 2022 … you might see me there.
But beyond the sport, Adeagbo now has a larger platform to inspire and motivate others to live out their fullest lives.
Right now she lives in Johannesburg, where she works as a business leader for Nike. In her spare time, shes working on a leadership and sports masterclass for Nigerian nonprofits to utilize to build up the next generation of girls.
This past summer she was elected to the inaugural Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa Program, which aims to train, support and connect 200 young leaders across the continent. She gave her first sold-out TED Talk in which she talks about the unpredictability of knowing how you are going to serve the world.
I didn’t realize my opportunity to create change was going to involve sliding down a frozen ice track at crazy speeds, but that’s how it came, said Adeagbo. I think we all have to be ready to answer those two simple questions: Why not me? And why not now? And look for those opportunities all around us however big or small to create change in the world for the better. I would love to work in a world where the girl who’s never seen snow can still believe that she can win the gold medal in skeleton because it’s possible.
Great meeting with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach. President Bach and I spoke about our shared vision to bring the Olympic Games to Africa and our passion for empowering women and girls around the world. It was an honor to meet with President Bach and work toward building a better world through sport. SWIPE to see more pics. #Olympisminaction #unitedby #gamechanger
451 Likes, 15 Comments – SimiSleighs (@simisleighs) on Instagram: “Great meeting with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach. President Bach and…”
Perhaps her most surprising pursuit is trying to get Africa to host the Winter Olympics. Adeagbo recently met with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and discussed the potential of that happening.
To some, bringing the Winter Games to Africa might seem like an impossible trail to blaze like a far off fantasy.
But this is all a dream remember? An amazing, beautiful dream.
A dream that Adeagbo never really woke up from. Not even when a mere 8-inches stole her spot on Team USA. Not even when she faced the most dangerous skeleton track on earth.
Adeagbo lives to achieve the unthinkable. To be a trailblazer.
Who said a fire couldnt start with ice?