Mary Onyali-Omagbemi one of Nigeria’s highly decorated former sprinters, opened up in a recent interview with Punch. She recounted how she almost gave up her career because of several arm robbery attacks on her and mother. She also talked about her marriage and life after retirement.
Did you ever have a situation when you needed to compete even though you were deeply troubled within you?
Yes, but the incident I faced actually happened after my competition. We just returned from the All Africa Games in Zimbabwe in 1991 where we did so well. It was during the time that I was preparing for my traditional wedding. Armed robbers came to my mother’s house in Lagos and took everything I brought back from the games, including my passports; they stole all my possessions. That incident messed up all the good memory I brought back from the games in Zimbabwe. At that point, I felt like quitting and not competing for Nigeria again. Before then, my mother had been attacked by armed robbers several times because of my popularity which attracted some bad people to her. That moment was so painful for me that I thought about quitting. I thank God the Inspector-General of Police at the time came to my mother’s rescue. That was the fourth time my mother was visited by armed robbers. I was in Nigeria with her in the house when they came for the last time. That really scared my mother.They eventually caught the robbers.
Did it affect your wedding plans?
Yes, it did because they stole all the money we needed to use for the wedding. However, I have to thank the National Sports Commission at the time and kudos to Amos Adamu, who was a bigwig in the sports industry at the time. I went to him and explained everything that had happened. Moreover, people had seen it in the newspapers as well, so they rallied round me and helped me out.
You started out at a time the sports industry was really dominated by men. How were you able to cope?
In Nigeria and Africa, sport has always being seen as a man’s domain. It was a breakthrough period for women in sports and I am proud to say that I am one of the leading women that championed the breakthrough which led to the recognition of women in sport, both in Nigeria and Africa. In some parts of Africa, especially in North Africa, it was a taboo to wear shorts, let alone to wear briefs we wore to compete. But I am proud to be one of the leading women that broke through in the world of sport, which was considered as a man’s world. There was no direct segregation, but we were not given the kind of accolades and recognition that men got but we never gave up. We were persistent and now, if you check the records, 85 per cent of all medals won at international competitions are won by women. This happened because we were persistent and we fought back.
Now that you have retired from active sport, what do you do with your time?
I am retired but not tired. I have moved from active sport to administration, mentorship and the development of young talents, all in the area of sport. I teamed up with 10 other internationals like myself from different sports and we came up with what we call BOOST, which means Basic Olive Opportunity Sport Training. It is aimed at discovering talents from the grass roots, either from secondary or primary schools. We assign coaches to schools, buy equipment and the coaches train them in five different sports. Life after sport is where I have found most joy and peace, especially with our project which is doing very well.
You got married to a sprinter like yourself. How was the wooing process?
It was really smooth and easy because we practically did the same thing every day. It was the easiest ‘toasting.’ It was not difficult because we felt like one family and we knew each other. The only thing we did not have was the same parents. We had the same coach in Lagos. Shortly after we met in Nigeria, we both travelled to the US for our studies. As God would have it, we ended up in the same school in the US so the wooing continued there.
Do you think that if you had not married an athlete, you would have got to the top of your career?
I believe so and my marriage is a plus to my career. I believed that if I had got married to someone who was not sport-inclined, a typical African who would want you to have a regular job or stay at home as a mother; it would have been a disaster. There probably would not have been a marriage at the end of the day because during the courtship, I would have sensed that he was not going my direction and something would have ended the relationship.
We learnt that your daughter is also a sprinter like her parents…
Yes, my daughter ended up sprinting like her parents and she won a scholarship at the University of Houston and she is in her third year.