By Sue Ann Rybak
If all goes well, Chierika Ukogu, 23, of Northeast Philadelphia, will be rowing for Nigeria in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Ukogu, whose parents were both born in Ukpor, Nigeria, recalled watching Hamadou Djibou Issaka, a rower who was chosen by the Tripartite Commission to be a wild card, in the 2012 Summer Olympics. She said the program, which allocates Olympic spots to countries with less than eight athletes in individual sports or disciplines, is dedicated to strengthening the principle of universal representation.
“Issaka was so slow,” said the 23-year-old who rowed at Mount St. Joseph Academy and Stanford University. He only learned how to row three months before the Olympics. I remember watching and thinking ‘I actually know how to row – I should do that.’”
Later she reached out to Johny Akinyemi, a kayaker on the Nigerian team who did something similar.
“He was born in London but had family in Nigeria,” she said. “I remember tweeting him, ‘Nigerian rower interested.’ He forwarded me some emails, but nothing ever came of it. After I graduated, I was sort of at a crossroads. I wanted to start medical school, but I didn’t take my MCATS (Medical College Admissions Test) in time.
“It was during this interim period that I realized what a great opportunity this was. It was right around the Chibok school girls kidnapping. And morale was really low. It sort of tied together public heath and global health. Afterwards, I thought I could start medical school. I had to go into it blindly. It was a game of persistence.”
When she finally heard back from Nigerian officials they told her, “If you show up for worlds and qualify, we will support you. Last October, she qualified for the Olympics at the African Olympic Qualification Regatta in Tunis, Tunisia.
“Only the top four qualify and I placed third behind Zimbabwe and Algeria,” Ukogu said. “It feels incredible to have such an amazing opportunity. I think its every athlete’s dream to make it to the Olympics, so it is definitely surreal.”
Ukogu, who graduated with a degree from Stanford in 2014 in human biology, hopes to inspire women in the United States and in Nigeria.
“Rowing is a sport that requires means because the equipment and necessary infrastructure is so expensive,” she said. “That’s a main reason why athletes of color are not as involved in the sport. I hope to change that by being a role model.”
As a student at Mount St. Joseph Academy, 120 W. Wissahickon Ave. in Flourtown, Ukogu used to joke with her friends that she would never row a single.
“It’s actually very funny.” she said. “My high school teammates think it’s the biggest switch in the universe because I always said I would never do that.”
She said just the thought of being in a boat that was only a little bit bigger than her hips made her cringe.
“I remember thinking ‘Oh, no, that looks terrible,’” she recalled.
She said transitioning to sculling was difficult.
“I went from rowing with eight other women in a well-balanced boat to teetering in a boat barely wider than my hips,” she explained. “I have done a lot of work with my balance of the boat. It was definitely challenging to learn how to move a single effectively. I had to be more aware of my body and my technique.”
She said that, thanks to the Schuylkill River community and Art Post at the Conshohocken Rowing Center, she was able to get her technique down.
“Sculling is very rewarding because every stroke you take is your own,” she said. “Every little movement makes a difference. In sculling, there is immediate feedback. We have something called a speed coach that tells you how fast you are going, so you can immediately see how the slightest change in technique increases or decreases your speed.
And just being able to do it is its own reward.”
She said while the the Nigerian Sports Ministry has pledged to sponsor her, she still needs funds to pay for her living expenses, equipment and travel to the Olympics.
In February, Ukogu will be attending a training camp in Spain for a month and won’t be able to work.
She currently has a Gofundme page at http://www.gofundme.com/xe2a5b34. Unfortunately, she said most of the funds raised were used to travel to the World Championship. Now, she needs to start fund-raising for Rio.
In the meantime she said she will continue “training with world-class athletes at the Vesper Boat Club to get up to speed.”
“I definitely made a lot of improvements, but the medal stand is a long way for me,” she said. “I think success for me in the short term is training as hard as I can now so I can place as high as I can. Longterm success for me would be inspiring future generations of Nigerians to row.