Nigeria's Elizabeth Anyanacho: Inspiring a whole generation
The plan was for Elizabeth Anyanacho to qualify for Paris 2024 when she would be well prepared and experienced to compete at the highest level.
Yet now she is now on the path to Tokyo 2020, the first Nigerian female taekwondo athlete to qualify for the Olympics in 16 years.
It has been a remarkable breakthrough for Anyanacho who only began ‘practising kicks’ five years ago.
Her success is in part due to the dedication of the 2008 Olympic bronze medallist Chika Chukwumerije who has been mentoring and nurturing the next generation of taekwondo athletes in the sports-rich nation.
When Nigeria’s first ever female taekwondo Olympian Princess Dudu was manoeuvring around the Olympic mats at Athens 2004, five-year-old Anyanacho was enjoying one of her favourite martial-art-fuelled movies at her home in Abuja.
She knows the ‘Olympics is not a joke', but is keen to carve an Olympic legacy of her own by becoming a role model to other women who may want to pursue the sport.
“I want to inspire girls,” she told the Olympic Channel from Abuja.
Elizabeth Anyanacho's kick-start
At 16, Anyanacho wanted to try out a sport. She began training with the track and field team at a local stadium in Nigeria’s administrative capital Abuja.
Standing 6-foot-3 (1.9m), she figured she could dabble in the long and high jumps.
During one of her training sessions, she was spotted by Chukwumerije who was at the stadium to identify up-and-coming talent to train for taekwondo.
“In 2015 I went to the stadium to scout for tall boys and girls. Her body structure fits the body of a taekwondo athlete. She had never done sport in her life,” said Chukwumerije, now the technical director at Nigerian Taekwondo.
Chukumerije, a three-time Olympian, figured Anyanacho's long legs would give her an edge against opponents when she is kicking from a distance.
“I was happy to give it a try,” said Anyanacho who turned 21 a few weeks ago, despite looking closer to 16.
“I started thinking about sports when I was little, but I didn’t think I’d be a taekwondo athlete. I didn’t even know what taekwondo was. I liked action movies. I liked the kicks in the action movies.” - Elizabeth Anyanacho
Mastering the kicks and punches
Her father was protective of his daughter, unsure why she was engaging in a sport that was not so popular in her prime teenage years.
"Sometimes my dad questioned whether I really liked it. I think it’s because he wanted me to do basketball. He only allowed me to stay in the sport when he saw I was making progress and I was getting good at it,“ she explained.
“I was excited when I discovered taekwondo,” Anyanacho continued.
“At first when I started, I didn’t know I was going to come this far. After two years of training I loved it. I tried some kicks, turns and all that. My best kick is the half-kick, because I am very tall and I can be able to use my long legs for that.” - Elizabeth Anyanacho
Chukwumerjie added: “The first issue is the parents, you have to convince them why their kids have to do taekwondo, especially the girls. Why should they come to learn how to fight, why should they come and get injured?
“The priority for many families is income. And taekwondo is not a professional sport. It’s not like football or basketball.
“Most of the kids are not from wealthy families. It is about giving them life skills in addition to sporting skills,” said Chukwumerije.
“During my career, we used to have a situation of streets to podium and back to the streets. I decided to form a foundation to produce educated champions, having a better set of athletes. From the streets to the podium, and from there they have a life.” - Chika Chukwumerije
Shift of focus
Anyanacho spent more time training and improving her combat skills at the club where her coach also runs an all-round sports foundation.
The Statistics student at the Federal University of Technology Owerri was outstanding on the mat.
Her "raw talent", in the words of Chukwumerjie, came to fore as she easily kicked and punched her training opponents.
In her first competition in 2017 held in neighbouring Ghana, she won gold.
“I started thinking about the Olympics after my first major tournament in Ghana. I thought if I can train harder, I can get to the Olympics. Then I developed this mentality.”
Her coach added: “Our plan was eight years, so Paris 2024. But when I watched her in Ghana, she had so much talent, raw talent, I decided we could scale back her plan by three or four years if she worked hard.”
First shot at Olympic glory
The national under-67kg champion has competed in 13 tournaments, winning eight of them and finishing twice in second and three times in third place.
All these events formed part of the road that led her to Tokyo.
The 2019 African Games bronze medallist took a major leap in her career at the Olympic qualifiers in Morocco. She defeated Rio 2016 Olympian Urgence Mouega of Gabon.
“I am still yet to digest that. With time I will understand the true realisation of what I did,” she added of her surprise victory over the more experienced Mouega, the 2015 African Games champion.
“It is a big achievement for me. If I didn’t have the feeling that I am going to do good I wouldn’t have been on that platform. I could see that I can be among the best and do what the best of Africa are doing.”
“I’m able to do some of the moves I watched in the action movies I liked. I am still learning the turning kicks, quite difficult but they are so cool. But I have got the hang of most of the kicks. Watching the movies now I am like wow, ‘I know that move' or I keep saying, 'that’s a good move’.” - Elizabeth Anyanacho
'Olympics is no joke'
With Tokyo 2020 postponed, they have about 15 months to prepare and iron out any wrinkles in her game.
“I am happy that the first stage of the long-term goal has been fulfilled. I still realised I have a lot of work to do as the Olympics is no joke and I am now going to meet tougher and stronger opponents. I am going to work very hard to get to that point.”
“That’s the positive we took from this. We were prepared for July and knew we had a lot of ahead of us. It has given us a year and we shall put it to good use. Her technique, tactics and mind we still need to work on.
"Olympics is the biggest stage you can’t prepare enough. It increases your chances when you prepare better,” said Chukumerije.
A mission to inspire
Nigeria has qualified only four taekwondo athletes for the Olympics since the sport became a medal event at the 2000 Sydney Games.
Anyanacho will be the second Nigerian woman on the Olympic mat.
“Taekwondo has given me confidence, exposed me to different cultures and I have made friends from all over. I would not have had all these opportunities if it weren’t for taekwondo.”
In addition to her Olympic aspirations, she hopes her rise can inspire more women and girls.
“I was going through a video I saw Lauren Williams. I like the way she fights; she is in my weight category [under-]67. She is aggressive and goes for her kicks. I can learn from her because I aspire to be the best," she said.
"I want to win medals in continental events, World and the Olympics. I want to inspire the girl child, because we still we need a lot more Nigerians to be out there. I know that people are out there to support our dreams.” -Elizabeth Anyanacho