When Chierika Ukogu advanced to the quarterfinals of her rowing event at the ongoing Rio Olympics, many who watched- Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike- were surprised. Congratulatory messages popped up across social media in recognition of a feat that most thought impossible. After all, Nigeria has never had a representative at rowing in the Olympics before now.
In fact, Nigeria’s sports ministry initially had no plans to send rowers to the Olympics; that was supposed to happen four years after Rio, at the Tokyo games (Nigerians are probably more enthusiastic about kong fu or Graeco-Roman wrestling than they are about rowing). Nevertheless, the relative obscurity of Nigeria’s rowing community and more personal challenges did not deter Ukogu from pursuing her dream.
Chierika Ukogu, a graduate of the prestigious Stanford University, is, in fact, an American citizen whose parents arrived the United States as immigrants. She, however, insists that she has strong ties to Nigeria, and speaks of watching Nollywood movies, dancing ‘Alingo’ with her siblings, and eating native Nigerian food- besides spending summers with her relatives in the country she now represents at the Olympics.
Ukogu’s interest in rowing was sparked when she attended Mount Sinai Joseph Academy, which has a strong rowing tradition. Her passion for rowing caused her to join Stanford’s women’s rowing crew team while she studied pre-med at Palo Alto, California. By that time, she was already nursing the ambition to compete in the sport at the Olympics.
After putting her medical studies on hold to focus squarely on her rowing dream, she launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for her participation in the Olympics. The money, she said, were for travel expenses, entry fees, uniforms and boats. Despite not receiving financial support from the Nigeria’s rowing federation, she was able to make it to the big stage, and do the nation proud.
Ukogu plans to continue with her studies after participating in the Olympics. She will be commencing studies at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York soon few days after the end of her event at the games. For now, though, she has the task of trying to go past the quarter-finals and extend her already record-breaking run even further.