Feature | Wrestling

The rise of Odunayo Adekuoroye: From street vendor to wrestling champ

Nigeria’s two-time Commonwealth gold medallist recounts how she overcame hardships and kept wrestling even after her parents disowned her. 

By Evelyn Watta ·

In 2009 Odunayo Adekuoroye dreamt of becoming a sprinter.

She wearied of the monotony of her life, hawking on the streets of Akure, South-West of Nigeria.

Her dreams of becoming a sprinter were dashed, but that marked the start of a hugely successful career as a wrestler.

Just because she ‘wanted to travel,’ the teenager half-heartedly seized an opportunity to join her State’s wrestling team for the National Sports Festival.

But her first major fight was outside the wrestling mat. Her parents were not supportive of her interest in sports.

Adekuoroye was forced to hide her training from her family.

And when the 16-year-old won her first wrestling competition, she pretended she was going to school.

Angered by her defiance, her parents renounced her.

“When we came back, I couldn’t go home, my dad said I shouldn’t go to his house,” the three-time World medallist said in an interview with the Olympic Channel.

The wrestler opened up to the Olympic Channel on her difficult start to the sport, and why she does not take her achievements for granted.

Odunayo Adekuoroye of Nigeria celebrates victory over Pooja Dhanda of India in the Women's Freestyle 57 kg Gold Medal match at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Adekuoroye holds strong to second Olympic dreams

Like most people, Adekuoroye has been reflecting a lot during this global pandemic.

Several times her mind drifts away. The Nigerian star likes to control her thoughts and emotions, but these recent reveries power her up.

“Sometimes I ask myself why the Olympics have been postponed because most of my private times I have been drifting to Tokyo. I imagine myself fighting in the final at the Olympics,” she recounted the thoughts going through her head.

“I find myself often thinking about how the gold medal will be represented to me… my dream finally coming true. I can’t wait to experience that moment and make history as the first African woman to win Olympic gold in wrestling.”- Odunayo Adekuoroye to the Olympic Channel

The double Commonwealth Games champion is in a rush to get back to the Olympic mat, as she feels her Games debut at Rio 2016 was short-lived.

She reached the quarterfinals losing to Olympic bronze medallist Sweden’s Sofia Mattsson, a memory that delights and disturbs.

“It was special but a sad moment for me. I hoped I could get a medal. But I think one of the major problems I had, I didn’t have very good preparations and I was still young and just eager to win,” the 26-year-old told the Olympic Channel from her home in Ondo State, part of the Niger Delta - the oil-producing region of Nigeria.

“But since then I have wrestled a lot of matches that gives me confidence that I am now one of the top competitors to watch out for.”

The dancing wrestler

The talented wrestler has been training smarter and is sharper on the mat.

It’s been hard to pin her down since she defended her Commonwealth Games title at Gold Coast 2018.

But her mind and body changed way ahead of her triumph at the Commonwealth Games at Glasgow 2014.

“At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, no one expected me to win a gold medal. No one. A day before one of the big matches, I was pitted against a Canadian, a strong favourite, but I won 3-0 under three minutes,” she said.

Odunayo Adekuoroye of Nigeria competes against Jill Gallays of Canada in the Women's 53kg Wrestling at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Both faith and wrestling are important to Adekuoroye.

“I was so happy and sung through most of my warm-up. I felt like someone who was singing a new song because I felt my prayers were being answered.

She added: “After the gold medal, I was overwhelmed with joy I just started dancing, singing, and jumping. Since then whenever I am on the mat or warming up, I sing, dance and jump and I feel relaxed. They now call me the dancer. I have kept on at it since as it makes feel good and lively.”

Happiness has always been a choice for the wrestler off and on the mat.

“When you take this life too seriously, you are making things difficult for yourself. That’s why you have to find your happiness. I am always trying to be happy and smiling most of the time,” explained Adekuoroye, who made history by reaching the 2017 World Championships finals. She and Tunisia's Marwa Amri became the first African women to wrestle in a final at the Worlds.

‘Nothing at home’

The World number two has never lost her positivity despite her difficult childhood.

Adekuoroye was brought up in poverty.

She hawked on the streets as an impoverished child, one of millions of children across the West African nation, forced to work to make a living.

“Then there was nothing at home, and to combine education and sports wasn’t easy. I needed to work before we could get something at home to eat. Most of my siblings had left home. I decided to leave my school so that I can hawk, and we can get something to eat. Sometimes I had to do some dirty jobs to get money.”

Running was an escape from the difficulties of her everyday life. But Adekuoroye’s long stride faltered, and she gave up the chance to launch her sprinting career.

“I was a sprinter doing 100m, 200m and 400m,” she remembered.

“They held Trials to select the team for the Sports Festival. They said 1-2 would make the team, but later I was dropped despite placing second in the 200m. I was so disappointed.”

A wrestling coach who was looking to get the numbers for his Ondo State team convinced her to join the team.

“I didn’t even know wrestling as a sport, sprinting is all I knew. But I wanted to travel, that is why I agreed and followed him to trainin". Interestingly I won my first wrestling competition after training for a few weeks.”

In her telling, she returned to a sport that she had been practising for most of her life.

“We used to fight in schools when I was young. In primary and secondary school, I was taller than most of the students even the senior ones. You would not insult me and go free; I would wrestle you. I remember being in the middle of big fights not knowing that I will one day wrestle as a career.”

Her parents disowned her

After about a month of training, she left home for a wrestling competition claiming she was going to school.

“I ended up loving wrestling passionately."

She continued: "For my first competition, I told my parents I am going to school, but I left with the wrestling team. When I didn’t come back, they were worried and went looking for me everywhere, at the police station…Later I called them. I told them I am fine and I was at a wrestling competition."

“When we returned from the competition, I couldn’t go home, my dad warned me against going back to his house. They didn’t want me to wrestle. We disagreed.

“It took the intervention of wrestling officials and my coach Akuh Purity. They went and pleaded with my parents. That’s when my coach said he would pay for my school fees if they hand me over to him, and allow me to do sports. I think just because they wanted me to go to school they released me. After that, I lived with him [coach] for nine good years.”

The six-time African champion pushed her pain to the back of her mind and dug deep in training with her coach Purity, a retired wrestler.

At 17, she took bronze in the 48kg at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

“My coach has done so much for me. We spend a lot of time together, strength training, mat training. Sometimes he even stands in as a training partner for me. Most of the matches I have won, it’s not my strength but the intelligence of the coach.”

“He is outside and can see all. Like at the match I won to qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Games [2019 World championships in Kazakhstan], I heard his voice on the last point which almost went my opponent's way. He told me ‘throw her back’, I did that and earned the point. Even among a noisy crowd when I hear his voice, I pick it and follow it.”

Odunayo Adekuoroye of Nigeria celebrates with her coach Akuh Purity after winning gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. 

For Adekuoroye wrestling is all in the head

Adekuoroye is exceptional on her feet and has excellent stamina, but she thinks her biggest strength lies in her head.

“Wrestling is not always about your strength, your physique, it’s about what is in your head. 30% of your strength, 30% of your tactics but most is your mental ability to manoeuvre your opponent. Because most of the time on the mat competitors are equal in strength.”

“Mental training mainly comes from repetition, doing the same thing every day. Your brain opens to it. The coach also plays a role as he feeds your brain which builds on your confidence. Another good way is having a quiet time by yourself, visualising and imagining yourself winning on the mat.”

Currently, she occupies the number two spot in the 57kg category behind Japan’s Risako Kawai, the 2016 Olympic champion.

But she wants to leave a legacy in the sport that saved her.

“Most people didn’t think African women will one day dominate in wrestling. I believe that a lot of wrestlers will make Africans proud very soon. Because at the last African championships I saw a lot of improvements in African wrestling, which makes me very happy.”

Odunayo Adekuoroye of Nigeria and Pooja Dhanda of India compete during the Women's Freestyle 57 kg Gold Medal match at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.

‘Wrestling gave me a name’

She wants to continue to contribute towards growing African wrestling.

“Wrestling gave me fame, took me out of poverty and gave me a name. We didn’t have anything at home, but when I started making money, at least now we are not rich, but we are comfortable. We are now living in our own house, I bought a car for my dad, and I opened a shop for my mum.”- Odunayo Adekuoroye

“Male and female athletes come to me and tell me we are proud of you. Anytime I hear that ‘I want to be like Odunayo’, I am so honoured. One of my biggest dreams is to organise a training camp in Africa so that I can impart what I have acquired to young wrestlers.”

At the moment she is concentrating on her career, she still has very many years ahead of her.

“My dad used to tell me, ‘my daughter I believe what I can’t do anymore you can do it and make me proud.’ The only gift I can give him now is to medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The love I have for him will drive me."

“I want to wear an Olympic gold medal, like the wrestler I admire the most Jordan Burroughs. I love his style. When I was young, I used to watch his videos for hours. I want to succeed like him.- Odunayo Adekuoroye

“I also admire our national president Daniel Igali. He won gold for Canada, but his blood is Nigerian. One day we shall be on that podium with our flag, white and green, and make Nigeria proud.”