A new flag made its way to the Alpensia Sliding Centre on Friday night, and Chisom Ezeoke proudly tied it to a metal railing just beyond the finish line. The flag was a long way from home, with its three vertical stripes—green on the outsides with white in the middle—representing the African nation of Nigeria.
Simidele Adeagbo, the first Nigerian to compete in the history of the Winter Olympics and first African female athlete to compete in skeleton, completed the track with a time of 54.19 on Friday.
Ezeoke had been to plenty of Olympics. But this was her first featuring figure skating and alpine skiing instead of swimming and track. While a light snow began falling in between Adeagbo’s first and second heat in PyeongChang, it was 88 degrees in Ezeoke’s home city of Lagos, Nigeria. Perhaps that stark contrast added to just how improbable it all seemed. “For me, apart from having my kids, this is probably one of the proudest moments for me as a Nigerian,” she said. “People thought it was impossible.”
Adeagbo is one of four Nigerians to qualify for these Winter Games, along with three bobsledders. When she made the switch from track and field to the ice track, she thought she’d be a bobsledder, too. Then she discovered skeleton, in September 2017, and qualified for the Olympics soon after. Thanks to the schedule, she was the first to compete.
“That is amazing,” she said shortly after her second heat of the night. “I can’t stop smiling just thinking that this is really, really real now.” Sure, she’d walked in the Opening Ceremony and gone through her training runs on the same track. But it’s different once the competition begins. “When you actually compete it becomes even more real.”
The name Simidele means “accompany me home,” which is what she did just a few months after being born in Toronto, when her parents brought her back to their native Nigeria. She stayed there until seventh grade, when she moved to Louisville, Ky., which she considers her hometown. She was there for middle school, high school and an All-America career at UK in the triple jump.
The first Olympics Adeagbo remembers well are the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. She turned 15 in the middle of those Games, and at that point was just discovering how talented she was in track and field. She had previously tried to make Team USA in the triple jump, but had to follow a winding road to achieve her long-held Olympic dreams. By qualifying to represent Nigeria in PyeongChang, she did it in historic fashion.