By John Rosengren
In July 2016, two years after graduating from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in human resources, Akuoma Omeoga quit her HR job at Wells Fargo and moved to Houston. Attracted by the warmer weather and greater diversity but with no definite plan, she figured, Why not explore the world? “I’m very much a go-with-the-flow type person,” she says.
Which is how the former Gopher sprinter ended up on the Nigerian bobsled team.
In Houston, she met Seun Adigun, a sprinter herself at the University of Houston who had spent a season with the American women’s bobsled team and invited Omeoga to join the Nigerian team. Why not?
Adigun steers. Omeoga is the motor. She gets the sled moving by sprinting 40 meters then, while still running full tilt, jumping in behind Adigun, tucking her head to her knees, and counting the 22 curves until they reach the finish line, when she pulls the brake. Hence, her job title: brakeman. She alternates runs with another brakeman, Ngozi Onwumere. The three make up the first bobsled team from Africa to compete in the Winter Olympics, held in South Korea in February.
Omeoga can’t see when they are hurtling down the icy track at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour. She has to trust Adigun, who admits she is still learning and compares what she’s doing to putting a 16-year-old boy who has just gotten his driver’s license into the Daytona 500. “It’s scary whenever I really think about it,” Omeoga says.
For two months, they practiced by pushing a wheeled, wooden cart. Then it was time, in January 2017 at Park City, Utah, for their first run on a true bobsled track. Omeoga expected it to be fun, like a ride at the midway. Nuh uh. It was nervewracking. The curves banged her around. She finished bruised, head hurting, and wondering, “What the hell have I gotten into?”
Her jump into the sled was awkward. She felt clumsy. Frustrating for a former D-1 varsity athlete who had excelled at the 100 meters. She had to learn how to adjust for wind, ice, and g-forces. How to choreograph her footwork.
The turning point came in Calgary, March 2017, when Omeoga had a strong start, a seamless transition into the sled, and a smooth ride down. “I might enjoy this,” she thought.
Born in St. Paul 25 years ago, Omeoga was raised immersed in Nigerian culture and has dual citizenship. Both of her parents came to the United States to attend college, her mother, Angelina, in Eau Claire and her father, Ikwuagwu, at the U. Omeoga and her three sisters spoke their parents’ language at home and ate native dishes. “My parents made sure we were Nigerian before we left home,” she says. “My first culture is embedded in me.”
Speaking before the Olympics began, Omeoga said she was more excited to participate in the opening ceremony than to compete in the bobsled events. She anticipated walking with her teammates into the stadium where, for the first time at a Winter Olympics, the green and white flag of Nigeria would fly and where, also for the first time, the country’s national anthem would play. She said that’s when she would know she had succeeded. “In Nigerian culture, people like to see results. Having aspirations is cool but once you prove yourself, that’s when you’re legitimate. To actually be able to deliver is groundbreaking.”