If I hadn’t married a sportsman, my marriage would have been a disaster – Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, former Nigerian athlete

Mary Onyali-Omagbemi is a highly decorated former Nigerian female sprinter who won several medals in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, and other international competitions. In this interview with ADEMOLA OLONILUA, she speaks about her career, life and family

In 1992, you won a bronze medal in the Olympic Games in Spain. Was that your first medal?
That was the first medal I won in the Olympic Games but I had won numerous other international medals before then. I started competing internationally in 1983 and the first international competition I participated in Ghana. At that time, I was just out of high school but I was part of the senior team. In 1985, I left Nigeria for the United States on a four-year scholarship. While I was in college in the US, I also represented Team Nigeria and won some medals as well and it led to the first Olympic Games I participated in – Seoul, Korea 1988.
How did you feel when you did not win a medal in Seoul?
At the time, I was a college student. I was new at the Olympic Games and I was quite young and clueless as to what the competition was all about. I was just happy to be there and compete with Flo-Jo (Florence Griffith Joyner, American track and field athlete), who I competed against at the semi-final of the 200m. At that Olympic Games, I was the fastest non-qualifying 200 metres runner ever. My time was 22.55 seconds. I was happy because it was a great learning experience and after that, my story changed. I became more aware of what the stakes were.
How did you feel when you first represented Nigeria at an international competition?
I felt a sense of pride. I felt very good about myself. I felt like a superstar who was representing herself, family and country and for these reasons, I did not want to give anything other than my best and come out at the top so that whatever happened at the end of the day, I would be very happy with myself knowing that I gave it my all.
As of the time you became a sportswoman, most parents would not willingly allow their daughters to engage in such. How did your parents react to your career choice?
Sport was popular when I was in high school but it was not something parents allowed their children to do as a career because they did not understand that one could make a career out of it. They did not understand what it took to be a sportsperson and that you could make a living from it. My perseverance helped me to persist and insist that I wanted to be a sportswoman. I was raised by a single mother. I had to convince my mother and uncles beyond reasonable doubts that I wanted to be a sportswoman. I was told by most of my Physical Education teachers, who were from Ghana that I could make a career and life out of it. That was what made me take it more seriously because I knew that being the first child out of four children; my mother would not have been able to fund our education. When I heard that I could be given free education because of my participation in sport, I jumped at the offer. My mother did not understand what I was doing but I thank God that my persistence paid off and now she is proud of me.
Did she subject you to any drastic punishment just to ensure that you quit sport?
She was not too drastic and my punishment was that I would not be allowed to go to practice or any competition we had; that was enough punishment for me. She did not beat me or starve me, my mother just had to put her foot down, that I was not going. However, my Physical Education teachers and my friends were always there to help me out. I was the games prefect in my school, so the teachers had to do something to convince my mother that I was really needed. They came with the school bus to pick me up and drop me after my competitions. It was just to convince my mother that I was really needed and that softened her heart. However, there was a warning and it was that I must do well in my studies. She said that if my grades were ever bad, I would be made to quit sport so I had no choice but to ensure that I always had good grades. I am glad and I thank my mother so much for that rule because, without it, I probably would have never been able to get that scholarship. At the time, I did not know that sport and scholarship go together. I did not know that I needed good grades to get a scholarship so I am glad she made that rule.
At what point did your mother tell you that she was proud of you and your achievements?
It did not take long after it was clear to her that I was leaving Nigeria to the US to further my education. That was when it began to dawn on her because I had saved her some money and stress. Also, I was doing well in my education and what I loved to do. When I got back home, I always made sure she was comfortable, then I began to represent Nigeria and I was earning enough money to take care of her. I built her a house in Lagos and that was when it really dawned on her.
Did you ever have a situation when you needed to compete even though you were deeply troubled within you?
Yes, but the incident I faced actually happened after my competition. We just returned from the All Africa Games in Zimbabwe in 1991 where we did so well. It was during the time that I was preparing for my traditional wedding. Armed robbers came to my mother’s house in Lagos and took everything I brought back from the games, including my passports; they stole all my possessions. That incident messed up all the good memory I brought back from the games in Zimbabwe. At that point, I felt like quitting and not competing for Nigeria again. Before then, my mother had been attacked by armed robbers several times because of my popularity which attracted some bad people to her. That moment was so painful for me that I thought about quitting. I thank God the Inspector-General of Police at the time came to my mother’s rescue. That was the fourth time my mother was visited by armed robbers. I was in Nigeria with her in the house when they came for the last time. That really scared my mother. They eventually caught the robbers.
Did it affect your wedding plans?
Yes, it did because they stole all the money we needed to use for the wedding. However, I have to thank the National Sports Commission at the time and kudos to Amos Adamu, who was a bigwig in the sports industry at the time. I went to him and explained everything that had happened. Moreover, people had seen it in the newspapers as well, so they rallied round me and helped me out.
You started out at a time the sports industry was really dominated by men. How were you able to cope?
In Nigeria and Africa, sport has always being seen as a man’s domain. It was a breakthrough period for women in sports and I am proud to say that I am one of the leading women that championed the breakthrough which led to the recognition of women in sport, both in Nigeria and Africa. In some parts of Africa, especially in North Africa, it was a taboo to wear shorts, let alone to wear briefs we wore to compete. But I am proud to be one of the leading women that broke through in the world of sport, which was considered as a man’s world. There was no direct segregation, but we were not given the kind of accolades and recognition that men got but we never gave up. We were persistent and now, if you check the records, 85 per cent of all medals won at international competitions are won by women. This happened because we were persistent and we fought back.
Now that you have retired from active sport, what do you do with your time?
I am retired but not tired. I have moved from active sport to administration, mentorship and the development of young talents, all in the area of sport. I teamed up with 10 other internationals like myself from different sports and we came up with what we call BOOST, which means Basic Olive Opportunity Sport Training. It is aimed at discovering talents from the grass roots, either from secondary or primary schools. We assign coaches to schools, buy equipment and the coaches train them in five different sports. Life after sport is where I have found most joy and peace, especially with our project which is doing very well.
When you are not busy with matters related to sport, how do you relax?
I do not think there is anything like that in my dictionary. I have always worked. I know how to relax but I cannot really define what relaxation means to me. If it does not entail sports, then I do not know how to relax. The most I can get is sleep, watch television and spend time with my kids. Other than that, I do not attend parties. I socialise but I find it very difficult to go out. I think my moment of relaxation is during Christmas when I have to go back to the US to visit my daughter and sister. My sister would drag me out because she loves partying; she really enjoys it.
When was the last time you went to a party?
I cannot remember. I just like being home, I am a homely person.
You got married to a sprinter like yourself. How was the wooing process?
It was really smooth and easy because we practically did the same thing every day. It was the easiest ‘toasting.’ It was not difficult because we felt like one family and we knew each other. The only thing we did not have was the same parents. We had the same coach in Lagos. Shortly after we met in Nigeria, we both travelled to the US for our studies. As God would have it, we ended up in the same school in the US so the wooing continued there.
Do you think that if you had not married an athlete, you would have got to the top of your career?
I believe so and my marriage is a plus to my career. I believed that if I had got married to someone who was not sport-inclined, a typical African who would want you to have a regular job or stay at home as a mother; it would have been a disaster. There probably would not have been a marriage at the end of the day because during the courtship, I would have sensed that he was not going my direction and something would have ended the relationship.
We learnt that your daughter is also a sprinter like her parents…
Yes, my daughter ended up sprinting like her parents and she won a scholarship at the University of Houston and she is in her third year.

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