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Mary Onyali-Omagbemi: Sprints of passion, patriotism

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By Emeka Chiaghanam

MARY Nkemdilim Onyali-Omagbemi raised the bar for female sprinting in Nigeria. For that reason, she is called the ‘Queen of Nigerian sprints’ before her retirement from the sport that she competed and dominated for almost two decades. Her emergence not only paved way but also motivated many female athletes in the country.

The African continent felt her presence, as her efforts helped sweep medals in the short sprint and sprint relay races for Nigeria.
It was sheer hard work and determination for Mary to get to the zenith. She demonstrated that female athletes could excel and be as popular as their male counterparts. Mary burst into the scene when discussions of Nigeria’s record of accomplishments on track and field were centred on male athletes.

Her love for the sport also showed her patriotism for Nigeria. In her days, when some Nigerian born athletes were easily lured away by foreign countries, given their state of the art facilities and financial incentives Mary’s love for Nigeria drove her to be in the country. According to her, “I was offered the opportunities to change nationality. France, Sweden, and America and a host of others offered me opportunities. I can’t do it. My heart won’t let me despite that I never had anything rosy back from my country.”

Mary, who is the first Nigerian to compete at five Olympics, was born of Anambra parentage in present day Adamawa State as Mary Onyali on February 3, 1968. She lost her father at a young age and has her mother to cater for her and her younger siblings (a sister and two brothers).

As the eldest of the four children, her mother encouraged her to focus on her academics and emphasized sports as an extra-curricular activity; Mary rather was bent on maximizing both. She loved competing and from primary school to secondary level, She took the opportunity to participate in all possible sporting activities. She began representing her school by competing in inter-house sports.

After Secondary school education, she continued to run. She competed, won the junior category championships, and went on to compete in the senior category, as a junior and also won. By winning the senior category in the 100 and 200meters, she was chosen to represent Nigeria in Ghana in 1983 as her first international competition, but that opportunity was denied her with the excuse that she was young and did not have enough experience.

In 1984, she again won the senior division and was this time chosen to go to Kwara State. Again, disappointment hit her in the face. She was denied her right to compete in the 100 and 200meters races but was allowed to run the 4×100 relay. In 1985, she once again proved that she was in control of the 100 and 200ms when, as a junior, she defeated the senior women.

She competed at the 1985 All African Games in Cairo, Egypt, her second major competition. Prior to the championship, Mary had trained and competed barefoot on dirty surfaces, and never had the experience of using starting blocks. She was overwhelmed by the atmosphere that surrounded her that she false started twice and was disqualified in the 100m. The experience devastated her but redemption came in the 200m where she was placed second to a senior competitor.

Her talent was given the deserved recognition after the games. Her future father-in-law, then Athletic Director of Lagos, who had maintained a relationship with the administration at Texas Southern University introduced them to the young Mary Onyali. Not until then that the thought of going to university in the United States and perhaps getting a scholarship, occurred to her.

There were universities in Nigeria, where she could have gone to pursue her academic education, but no athletic grants were offered and her mother could not afford her university tuition. Mary received a scholarship in 1985 from the university, which offered her education and better training facilities. At Texas Southern University, where she studied for a degree in Telecommunications and Theatre, she went on to become a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion.

In 1986, Mary competed at the inaugural World Junior Championships in Athletics held in Athens, Greece. She won silver medal in the 200m coming second to another Nigerian sprinter, Falilat Ogunkoya. She won a bronze medal in the 4×100m relay.

At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics 4x100m where she ran the anchor leg to give Nigeria a well-celebrated bronze medal in the Olympics, Mary said, “the odds were against us before the final. When we saw the Jamaicans falter, we took the opportunity. I got the baton from the fifth place and we ended up third. Before the race, three of us were already injured.

We ran for the passion and love for the sport. Unlike today, modern athletes have re-ordered the priority line. Now, its money, passion, education.” The 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, was her biggest Olympic moment, she ran an outstanding time of 22.38 in the 200m to win bronze medal.

On government’s role in sports development, the star athlete pointed out that, “talent is what coaches work on in an athlete, if there are infrastructure, good environment, then the athletes will emerge. If the infrastructure are not there, nothing works. Give us facilities in the communities and see the hordes of talents that will flow. Sports anywhere in the world is community-based”

Mary’s three Ds– Discipline, Determination and Dedication has helped her bagg many honours in her chosen career as a sports woman. She is married to fellow Nigerian sprinter, Victor Omagbemi, with two children, Tia Ijeoma Omagbemi and Ivan Omagbemi.

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