This story originally appeared in the January 2018 issue with the headline “Cool Runnings, The Sequel.”
Growing up in Mesquite, Ngozi Onwumere didn’t have much of a chance to participate in winter sports. And yet, improbably, the 25-year-old University of Houston graduate and her friends Seun Adigun and Akuoma Omeoga recently qualified to represent Nigeria in the bobsledding competition in this February’s Winter Olympics. It’s an achievement that has brought the three American-born children of Nigerian immigrants a great deal of attention from the media—as well as plenty of joking references to the 1993 movie Cool Runnings. Sometime this month the Nigeria Olympic Committee will officially inform them whether they’ll actually get to compete. If they do, they’ll be the first team to represent Nigeria in any Winter Olympics.
Doyin Oyeniyi: Before you got involved in bobsledding, you were involved in other kinds of athletics, right?
Ngozi Onwumere: I went to the University of Houston, where I ran track, and then after that I started to run for Nigeria. I competed in the All-Africa Games 2015 competition—I represented Nigeria for about a year—and then I retired.
DO: You were only in your twenties. Why did you retire so early?
NO: I didn’t see myself doing sports for the rest of my life. It was more a means to an end. In high school I got a college scholarship, and those four years went pretty well. So I was like, “Hey, maybe I can do this professionally.” I gave myself one year to get it together, to do a major competition and represent Nigeria in the games. After that I was pretty fulfilled.
DO: You didn’t get involved in bobsledding until 2016, when you were recruited by Seun Adigun [a track coach at the University of Houston who represented Nigeria in the 100-meter hurdle at the 2012 Summer Olympics and founded the country’s bobsled team two years ago]. What did she say to persuade you?
NO: When I got recruited [for track] out of high school, she was the first coach I met when I went to campus for my visit. My parents were like, “Oh, she’s a Nigerian and a woman and a coach. She can watch over you.” They didn’t want me to go to Houston for school, so it was reassuring for them to meet her. And we just maintained that relationship throughout my time at the university.
Afterward, since we were both athletes who were representing Nigeria, we became friends. We have our annual dinners just to check up and see how we’re both doing, what we have planned for the year, things of that sort. So in this particular meeting [in 2016], she started to discuss bobsled. At that time I was done with track and field; I was just drained. I thought I would never do a sport again and that I was just going to start hopping into my professional career in the health field. I didn’t really know what bobsled was, so I wasn’t quick to answer and agree. But then I started to look at the bright side, like, “Hmm, bobsled is something I’ve never heard of.” I was in a place where I needed something new and adventurous, so I took the offer.
DO: How much time passed between when you said, “Okay, I’m going to be part of the team,” and qualifying for the Olympics?
NO: We started this conversation officially in September 2016, so it’s only been a year or so, but it felt like a lifetime because we’ve had to do so much. We started from ground zero.
DO: You wanted to raise $75,000 on GoFundMe, and you’ve reached your goal. Is there more to do?
NO: In bobsled there’s always more to do. I think that the biggest goal right now is getting the sled. The GoFundMe account provided our training, support, things of that sort. It got us through the whole last season, so we are extremely thankful for that. But that being said, there’s still a lot of things that we don’t have that we’re going to continue to try to get.
DO: Did your training as a track athlete help you become a bobsledder?
NO: It’s actually very similar, surprisingly. A lot of track technicalities are similar to bobsled, especially in the position I do. I’m a brakeman, and that entails a lot of strength, a lot of speed. The only thing we’re at a disadvantage on is our weight; we’re very underweight for the sport. A lot of the training in itself is very similar to track and field, strength- and conditioning-wise. It’s a lot of weight training, cardio, and things of that sort.
DO: When did you first get on the ice?
NO: My first time on the ice was about a year ago, in Park City. It was also our first official race.
DO: How did that go?
NO: We crashed. But the good thing about our crash is we crashed with so much momentum that we got past the finish line, so it counted. There were so many things that were going through my mind that day, because I was extremely scared—I don’t really like roller coasters, and I didn’t know what to expect. Everybody around me was telling me to expect speed, and I was like, “Okay, what’s going to happen here?” It was just the fear of the unknown. And once I actually [did it], it wasn’t too scary anymore. I came back and I knew what to train for; I knew how to hit the sled, how to get in the sled. My main question—my main fear—was, “What if I don’t [manage to get] in the sled?” And everybody’s answer was, “You’re going to get in the sled.” But I’m like, “Okay, but what’s plan B?” (Laughs.)
DO: All of this makes me think of the movie Cool Runnings, about the Jamaican bobsled team.
NO: We’re actually very close to them. It’s cool to see that that team—which started thirty years ago—is still alive and well. We hope to be the exact same way.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.