Freestyle wrestler and gold medallist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Odunayo Adekuoroye, speaks to Mobola Sadiq about her career, challenges facing female wrestlers, marriage and other issues.
What can you tell us about your childhood?
I am from a family of nine and I am the last child. My dad is a pastor and my mother is a petty trader. I was born in Akure, Ondo State. For my elementary education, I went to Ijapo Primary School, and I attended Adegbola Memorial Grammar School for my secondary education. I later obtained a diploma in Sports Science at the Federal University of Technology, Akure. I hope to proceed with my education after the Olympics in the USA.
At what point did you develop an interest in wrestling?
At first, I didn’t like to wrestle at all. I went to the stadium to learn how to run. We were preparing for a school competition then and only the first and second would be picked. I placed second but they dropped me and picked the winner. The wrestling coach saw me crying and said if I wanted to wrestle, he would take me to the same competition. I decided to follow him because I desperately wanted to travel. Luckily, I won a gold medal in the competition at Ogun State.
How did your parents react when you chose wrestling as a career?
My parents didn’t know that I was competing in wrestling at that time. I recall that, we were getting ready for the Okada Games and I was selected to represent my secondary school. I told my coach that I couldn’t come to camp but would be coming from home because I didn’t want my parents to know. When it was time for us to travel for the competition, I packed my clothes in my school bag and dressed like I was going to school but instead, followed them to the Okada Games. After I won a gold medal at the games, I made up my mind to be a full-time wrestler. What attracted me to the sport was the opportunity to travel out of the country, which was one of my dreams as a young girl. Meanwhile at that time, my parents were looking for me and they reported that I was missing at the police station. I later called to tell them I was fine but my angry parents told me they had disowned me and warned me not to come back home. I arrived from the games four days later but I stayed with my coach. My coach and some other people then followed me to beg my parents to accept me back. My coach also promised my parents that he would take good care of me, and that’s how my wrestling career began.
Compared to your foreign counterparts, do you think you have got the best from Nigeria?
In terms of training, my coach is the best but my foreign counterparts have better facilities to train. They enjoy good support from the private sector. The best part of their careers is that they are rewarded handsomely after winning medals. But in Nigeria, things like that are scarce. We don’t even get a presidential handshake/greeting. The love for the games has been our only source of motivation.
Do you think that more women have taken interest in wrestling in Nigeria?
Yes, there are a lot of girls that want to be like me and I’m very happy for them. Wrestling was not very popular before but God has used me to bring attention to the game. A lot of young girls have now picked interest in the game. My younger sister, Mercy, also wants to be a wrestler. Thankfully, she is a junior African champion.
Are you married?
No, I’m not married. Marriage is not my priority for now. I need to further my education. To combine sports and marriage is quite difficult. However, I have seen athletes combining their careers and marriages. I know I would find a husband when I’m ready. It’s not something that needs to be rushed into. A lot of people say they love one because of one’s fame but I don’t even know who really loves me. It’s something I have to really pray about before getting into. Thankfully, I am a member of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministry and a ‘daughter’ of Dr Olukoya.
What are the major challenges facing female wrestlers in Nigeria?
I think it has to do with funds; nothing more. We don’t have money to compete like we want to and it’s really affecting us. But thank God for my spiritual father, Dr Olukoya. If not for him, I don’t think people would know who Odunayo is today. For most of the competitions I partake in; when the government doesn’t want to sponsor, I run to him and he pays for it. However, it must be noted that the challenges of funding affects all sports; not just wrestling.
Do you think that the government has shown significant support for wrestling In Nigeria?
I don’t know who is showing support for wrestling in Nigeria. But as for me, Dr Olukoya has been my only support. He gives financial assistance and other things. My dad and friends also support me. My father doesn’t leave the church. He prays every time and his prayers are really working for me.
What is the highest amount you’ve been paid for wrestling?
There are different tournaments but games like the All African Games, Commonwealth Games (and others in that category) pay well– as much as seven thousand dollars. When I won the Commonwealth Gold medal, I got N2.5m. African Championship, World Championship and the likes don’t pay well; the highest one can get from them is about a thousand dollars or $1,200.
Have you ever being sexually harassed as a female wrestler?
No, I’ve never faced any form of sexual harassment. I think it’s a function of the mind. I train with guys always; I wrestle with them. On the mat, we wrestlers believe we are the same. On the wrestling mat, I have a different spirit. We believe we are the same, so there is no difference (between genders). What really brings about sexual harassment in sports is when one is trying to lobby for certain things. At least, those are the cases I’ve heard about.
Do wrestlers get attracted to one another?
There are some wrestlers who got married to one another. I know about 10 wrestlers that got married to one another.
Do you wish to marry a wrestler?
I don’t want to get married to a wrestler. If I marry one, then we would produce a weightlifter. I have never thought of dating a wrestler; talk more of getting married to one. We are good people but I don’t want. In fact, I’ve never been in a relationship with any wrestler. When I go for competitions, I’m always focused.
I’m 26 years old. People say that a woman needs to get married early so one doesn’t end up being a single mother. But for me, I believe when it’s time, the right man would come. I have a lot of friends that have been going about with promise rings for years now.
I was born into a modest background where we ate maybe once a day. So, I know what poverty is. When I have enough, I would get married. I don’t even want my kids to know what poverty is and I can’t be waiting for a guy to give me money. Since I have something that can fetch me money for the future, why wouldn’t I give it my all? I still want to compete at the Olympics before thinking of marriage.
Are you cautious of injuries during fights?
I’ve never had a serious injury or dislocation during my fights; it has just been bruises. If one is afraid of injury, one would get injured. In fact, there’s a 70 per cent chance of sustaining injuries when you are afraid. Meanwhile, if you are not afraid, even though you might get injured, it may not be serious.
How do you handle male admirers?
If I don’t like a person, I would tell him we can be friends but can’t date each other. I have a lot of male friends because they are ready to help. And because I train with the opposite sex, I know how to handle them.
I receive plenty messages from admirers on WhatsApp and Facebook but physically, I don’t meet people often. I don’t really have time for men. My coach had once seized my phone because I was making calls at midnight. When I started making my hair, my coach told me I had to cut it because I may be distracted and think that I’m now a big girl.
I thought he was punishing me but I didn’t know he was training me for great things. My coach tells me so many things about men.
People think that wrestlers are not feminine enough to be called sexy. What’s your response to that?
If I don’t tell you that I’m a wrestler, you won’t know. Some people have muscles but I don’t have big muscles. In photos, it looks like I have big muscles because the photos are bold and all my veins would show. But when you see me in person, you would be surprised. I have never been told that I look like a man. I’m so proud of my body. I’m not bothered about insults because I was born in the ghetto. Truthfully, if one is a sports person, one won’t look sexy because one trains hard– one lifts weights, do push-ups and many other things just for one’s muscles to be strong.
I once saw a former weightlifter who has three kids now. You wouldn’t believe she was once a weightlifter. So I believe in the future and I’m very sexy.
If you were not a wrestler, what would you have been doing?
I would have been an accountant if I was not a wrestler. My dad used to take me to the bank when I was little, so I thought I would be an accountant.
Is wrestling as fulfilling as you envisaged?
For now, I have tried– at least, 70 per cent. But after the forthcoming Olympics, I would know if I am fulfilled.
What’s your advice to female wrestlers trying to make a name for themselves?
They should stay strong and aspire to be big. They have to set goals for themselves and be disciplined. Your coach knows more than you, so you have to obey him/her. The most important thing is that if you’re right with God, you would go far.
How do you like to dress?
I love to wear gowns but I don’t like to apply make-up. I also love wearing heels. I don’t dress like a tomboy. I love fashionable designer clothes.
What are your hobbies aside from wrestling?
I love singing, driving and reading Godly books, especially those written by Dr Olukoya.
Are men intimidated by your strength?
Yes, they are. Even in banks, when I tell them I’m a wrestler, they quickly attend to me and say they don’t want a fight. But I don’t fight. The last time I fought was in secondary school.