Nigeria’s queen of the tracks, Blessing Okagbare, in this exclusive interview with EMMANUEL TOBI from her US base, speaks on the need for the Athletic Federation of Nigeria to communicate more with the athletes and other issues.
Congratulations on your induction into the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) Hall of Fame, were you expecting it?
I expected it kind of but not basically. Usually you are actually considered for Hall of Fame induction after 10 years off.
So this one came unexpectedly, how did you feel when you first got the information?
I was surprised, I shouted Wow! I said really? And they said ‘yes; we didn’t have a choice because whatever you have done has encouraged a lot of people and we have to put you ahead of so many people because of your achievements. I said okay, no problem.
It was a great atmosphere when I got there. It was like I never left, people were just congratulating me; they were all around me, it was really a great, warm welcome.
And the greatest joy was having your family around you, what does that mean to you?
I had wanted them to come earlier when I was graduating from school but they couldn’t make it, so when they came this time, it was something they witnessed and they can actually talk about it. You know this was actually the first time other than having my husband on certain occasions, it was my first time having them around; it was great.
What memories did your return bring back to you?
It brought back memories of people who actually gave me a chance to chase my dreams. I wanted to go to school so bad but I also have this talent and I wanted to do sports efficiently, so they gave me a great chance, an opportunity to actually do both. Two things that I actually wanted to do: get a degree and compete at the high level, they gave me the chance and opportunity.
Going down memory lane, how did your trip to America start?
I got a call from Tony Osheku and he told me about how you don’t just focus on sports alone but you also get your degree. But sometimes you have to be efficient in class for you to be eligible so as to to be able to compete when it comes to running, so that’s how it works, it’s not just about coming here to compete.
No, you have to pass in your classes to be able to get the grades to be eligible to compete, that’s the rule. He talked to me about this and he told me that not all athletes who came to UK were doing well. I ended up calling a few athletes; I spoke to Damola Osayemi, Fatimah, Haleemah, these are people that could actually put me through. I knew when I got there, I won’t be struggling because I already had these people that could guide me; so I took the opportunity.
What about the support from AFN then?
Then I had Solomon Ogba; Ogba was not actually part of the federation when I went to school but I had known Ogba for a very long time, since I was a little girl and he believed in my ability so much. He would always talk to me, make phone calls, keep in touch. I actually started expecting a lot from the federation when I started doing well and making the Olympics cut. It’s the federation, they just face those that are doing extremely well, they don’t really bother about those not doing well. It’s just normal in the federation.
So when Ogba came to the federation, he was now like your father, always guiding you?
Yeah, we already had that more than friendship connection. He knows me, he knows my person, so there were things that just became very easy, when he looks at me and I am not smiling about something, he knows what’s wrong and it was easier for me to actually explain certain things to him. He didn’t change anything but he just made most of the things easier for me.
So what’s your advice to the Federation about young athletes who want to pass through this level?
To the federation, I think they need to start communicating more because when I came to school, it was only me that was there, nobody called to find out what was going on with me. So as a federation they should try as much as they can to communicate with athletes. There are lots of people that want to do this but if they don’t have people who call to encourage them, they act like they don’t care, it’s not encouraging at all.
A lot of people who don’t get motivated, just give up easily like that, they need extra motivation and support which the federation needs to be doing. We finished one championship last year, I don’t know how many people were contacted for a job well done, nothing like that. Ask them what they’ve been doing, find out how they’re feeling, we should do more of that. Put people in place, like a committee, the only thing they would do is to communicate with them, not just on and off, they should just try to keep in touch, to communicate, this will go a long way.
What are you doing to encourage younger athletes to learn from your own success in combining education and sports?
I do a lot of things but am not a fan of making noise about the things I do. People who support me know that, it takes a lot of pushing for me to agree that okay ‘let me now tell the world.’ But I think my story should motivate anyone that wants to actually do this, because most people if you do things for them, they don’t want it.
That is the truth about life, they have to really want it regardless of the situation; not minding what’s going to happen they have to want it. At the end of the day, if you find someone that’s going to do it, I will take the person up but I don’t make it known to the public because it not what I do, it’s not of me. Eight out of 10 might not get to where I am today but people that really want to, would have to go extra miles, do extra even across the federation; that’s if they really want it.
I do it not because I want to do it for myself, but I am more motivated by the hope and when I think about the people that have invested in me, I just want to do it for them. You have to have that zeal, that I really want to do it, I want to put my extra effort; I think my story should be enough and I have spoken to people as much as I could to encourage them, but if they don’t want it they don’t want it, that’s just the truth.
But if any of them want to go to UTEP and have similar experience, your door is opened to help, right?
Yes, Divine (Oduduru) is here where I am right now, so there are other people I
am trying to get, some of them you talk to them and they just say no. People like that you don’t force them, you just try to cut them, someone that wants it will want to come out and even if you act like you can’t help them; they will copy the moves and do all sorts. When you see that they want it, you will go the extra mile to help them. I tried many times to recruit, to get people here, the people that actually want to come; then I did everything I could. I talk to those here as well but it all depends on the person that actually wants to come, so anybody that wants to come, the door is opened.
What’s next for you, what’s your next plan?
I am not sure until I am allowed to do that, because I was dealing with injury all through the season so I am actually more on medications. So, if they say I am good to go, to go back to the pounding of my body, then that is it. I am just focusing more on trying to get extra healthier, trying to deal with all that crash up from last event.
So your appreciation goes to who and who?
My dad, my family for their support, it’s extremely amazing. The appreciation on Facebook; at first I didn’t want to do it but I think about these people; money is not everything, but the time is important. People that call you and talk to you to do this, I have to thank them regardless; they really supported me, they made me come out of my shell and become somebody.
Are you not worried that when you leave the scene, there’s not another Blessing Okagbare? Is that not a source of worry?
For now I can’t say but I think the new board will know, let’s see what the new board has to offer and how far they are willing to go to actually get the best. For me, I guess the new board is willing to work. I know because when Mary Onyali was leaving, it was like who’s going to take over, it took a while for me to come up so I feel we should just give it a little time. I don’t just want to jump into conclusion, there might be another Blessing or probably someone that will supersede what I did, but as I have said, let’s give it time and don’t let us jump into conclusion.
I am not worried because if they want other Blessing Okagbares, they can’t just pick them on the street, it takes a lot of people and it takes a lot of efforts to actually nurture talents to grow for people to see and say yes this is it. It takes a lot of work. We are surely going to have another strong girl that will win and might do better than I ever did.
Whenever Nigeria is competing, the world is always looking out fort Blessing Okagbare, does that put pressure on you as an athlete?
It used to and after 2012, all that pressure was gone, completely gone because in the 2012 Olympics I ran in the finals. They don’t know what it takes to be there, some of the administrators don’t understand sports and they want you to win gold, not even to win a medal. It’s gold they want, but it takes a lot.
Then in 2013, it was more like not looking at the pressure from who wants me to do this. I was just focused because I had worked hard to get there. I just do what I have to do and let the rest take care of itself. So, I wasn’t dealing with that pressure, all that pressure is gone, I don’t think anybody wants success or medal than I do.
I do my work, I wear my shoes, I know what happens if I don’t win medal or I don’t get to the finals, I know how I feel, I know how that affects me financially, mentally. Basically, nobody wants it more than I do, so that pressure is out of it, I just do what I have to do and make sure I get the job done.
You look different, you are looking beautiful, sexy, and charming, what has marriage done to you?
So far I will say yes, it is the best thing that has ever happened to me but the truth is that I am just being myself, more of me. Every day, I find something new that I want to do and I do it, I try not to let the things I go through set me back or weigh me down, the smile on my face doesn’t mean everything is well, it just means I appreciate every moment.
Now, I have a shoulder to cry on unlike before when you run and people don’t know what you passing through. Apart from my coaches and a few people, now I have someone who is there 24/7, believing in and inspiring me.
Sometimes I take it up like very being serious enough with him; when he tells me you are not doing something right, sometimes I just get frustrated and start blaming him for everything but he has been an amazing guy.
Daily Newtelegraph Nigeria
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