PYEONGCHANG, South Korea—A new flag made its way to the Alpensia Sliding Centre on Friday night, and Chisom Ezeoke proudly tied it to a metal railing just beyond the finish line. The flag was a long way from home, with its three vertical stripes—green on the outsides with white in the middle—representing the African nation of Nigeria.
“It never crossed my mind that Nigeria could be here,” Ezeoke, the Director of Communications for the Nigerian Olympic committee, said. But here it was. Simidele Adeagbo, the first Nigerian to compete in the history of the Winter Olympics and first African female athlete to compete in skeleton, completed the track with a time of 54.19 on Friday.
Ezeoke had been to plenty of Olympics. But this was her first featuring figure skating and alpine skiing instead of swimming and track. While a light snow began falling in between Adeagbo’s first and second heat in PyeongChang, it was 88 degrees in Ezeoke’s home city of Lagos, Nigeria. Perhaps that stark contrast added to just how improbable it all seemed. “For me, apart from having my kids, this is probably one of the proudest moments for me as a Nigerian,” she said. “People thought it was impossible.”
Adeagbo is one of four Nigerians to qualify for these Winter Games, along with three bobsledders. When she made the switch from track and field to the ice track, she thought she’d be a bobsledder, too. Then she discovered skeleton, in September 2017, and qualified for the Olympics soon after. Thanks to the schedule, she was the first to compete.
“That is amazing,” she said shortly after her second heat of the night. “I can’t stop smiling just thinking that this is really, really real now.” Sure, she’d walked in the Opening Ceremony and gone through her training runs on the same track. But it’s different once the competition begins. “When you actually compete it becomes even more real.”
The name Simidele means “accompany me home,” which is what she did just a few months after being born in Toronto, when her parents brought her back to their native Nigeria. She stayed there until seventh grade, when she moved to Louisville, Ky., which she considers her hometown. She was there for middle school, high school and an All-America career at UK in the triple jump.
The first Olympics Adeagbo remembers well are the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. She turned 15 in the middle of those Games, and at that point was just discovering how talented she was in track and field. She had previously tried to make Team USA in the triple jump, but had to follow a winding road to achieve her long-held Olympic dreams. By qualifying to represent Nigeria in PyeongChang, she did it in historic fashion.
Habu Ahmed Gumel, President of the Nigerian Olympic committee and a member of the IOC, says to get used to seeing their green and white flag mixed in among the German, American and British flags seen elsewhere around the track on Friday. “It’s going to be continuous,” he said. “We’re going to continue attending many to come. We’re going to expand the number of athletes and we’re going to expand the number of federations. It will not be only bobsled and skeleton.”
As for the run itself, Adeagbo’s time put her last out of the 20 skeleton racers. Her first run was 0.37 seconds behind the closest competitor, and her combined time had her 1.54 seconds behind the rest of the field. But through it she saw signs of progress, including a personal record on her push start time. She has only been practicing this sport for five months, after all.
She also recognizes that her Olympic experience is about much more than times. “This whole journey for me has been about the significance of what this represents. Not only for the people of Nigeria and the people of Africa, but globally. I think we need representation in this sport. I think we need to break barriers in this sport and I think me being the first black, African, Nigerian female to be here, makes a statement and I think opens doors for future generations of athletes.”
For many others from Nigeria, it means just as much. “It’s all about participation, and the girls giving their best,” Ezeoke said. “No matter what happens, I will be proud of them. They will be my heroes forever. There will be stories I’ll tell my daughter, my son, and their children for years to come.”
It was not the scene Adeagbo pictured when she first laid out her Olympic dream. But she is an Olympian all the same.
“Of course I thought it would be summer in the triple jump,” she said. “But hey, here I am, in the winter. It’s snowing but it’s still just as beautiful. The dream has been realized.”