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Nigerian women become first African bobsled team to qualify for Olympics

Seun Adigun crouched slightly as she stared down the bobsled track in Calgary this week. Perhaps envisioning that she was about to make history for an entire continent, the Nigerian bobsled driver flipped her face guard down and waited for the starting signal.

And with that, Adigun was off to solidify the goal she set for herself last year: to become not only the first women’s bobsled team from Nigeria to compete at the Olympics, but the first bobsled team period — from the entire continent of Africa — to compete.

“This is a huge milestone for sports in Nigeria,” Adigun told KweséESPN on Friday, two days after completing the fifth of five required races to qualify for the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. “Nothing makes me prouder than to know that I can play a small role in creating opportunities for winter sports to take place in Nigeria. Our objective now is to be the best representation of Africa that the Winter Olympics have ever witnessed.”

Going from zero to 90 mph — the average speed of an Olympic bobsled — was not an easy feat. Adigun, a U.S.-based former sprinter who ran for Nigeria in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, started the project from scratch last year, recruiting two other U.S.-based Nigerian sprinters — Ngozi Onwumere and Akuoma Omeoga — to join her. With little in the way of funding or equipment, the trio began practicing much like the famed four-man men’s Jamaican bobsled team did three decades ago — with a makeshift wooden sled handcrafted by Adigun.

“I just went for two or three days straight, just hammering and drilling and sawing this wooden sled together,” Adigun said last year, calling comparisons to the Jamaican team that competed at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary “honorable.”

The team ended up funding much of their efforts though a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign, which raised $75,000, including $50,000 from a single anonymous donor. The money proved enough to goad Nigeria into starting a governing federation for the sport, as well as for the team to start practicing in a real bobsled on ice. The trio eventually were able to fund their way through the five qualifying races necessary to become Winter Olympians. With Adigun always in the driver’s seat and backed up by Onwumere or Omeoga, who are push athletes, the various two-woman combinations completed races in Utah, Whistler and Calgary. Their final race was Wednesday.

“I commend the personal dedication and commitment of these women,” Nigerian Bobsled and Skeleton Federation President Solomon Ogba told ESPN. “Their hard work was inspiring, and I hope Nigerians can appreciate what it took for them to achieve this — the work, the discipline and the personal sacrifices. They were amazing throughout this journey.”

It would be a major if not slightly miraculous feat for the Nigerian women, who have since found sponsors in Under Armour and Visa, to medal next year. No African contender in any Winter Olympics event has ever made the podium, although more than a handful have tried.

Morocco and Algeria, for example, have entered skiers in multiple Olympic Games, while South Africa, Cameroon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal, Togo and Zimbabwe have entered athletes in several past Winter Olympics events, although never in bobsled.

Like Nigeria, Uganda is hoping to make history this year as well, thanks to 24-year-old snowboarder Brolin Mawejje. He’d be the first snowboarder to represent any African country in the Olympics if he qualifies.

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