Nigeria’s Cheirika Ukogu is set to make history at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janerio, Brazil. Ukogu will be Nigeria’s first representative at the Olympics rowing event.
Twenty-three-year-old Ukogu was born in the United States to immigrant parents from Nigeria. She holds a dual citizenship of the United States and Nigeria. But it is the green-white-green of the Nigerian flag that Ukogu will be flying at the Olympics this August.
Ukogu will compete in the women’s single scull event. She booked her place in Brazil with her strong performances at the FISA African qualifications, where she finished third overall.
While Ukogu, who her friends fondly call “Coco,” has lived her entire life in the United States, she is very attached to her Nigerian roots; she visits her relatives back in Nigeria as often as possible.
Ukogu has always been involved in water sports, but she says she was inspired to represent Nigeria internationally while watching events at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
At the London Games, Hamadou Djibo Issaka of the Republic of Niger (not to be confused with Nigeria) was Africa’s lone representative at the rowing events, after he scooped up the single spot the International Olympic Committee had offered to any country keen on developing the sport.
Issaka, who had only taken up rowing a few months before the games, eventually finished last — well behind every other participant. Issaka was repeatedly mocked, albeit playfully, in the media by fans and sports journalists.
Ukogu says she knew at that point that she wanted to change any negative perception people may have come to have about Africans in competitive rowing.
Naturally competitive and nearly 6 feet tall, she has most of the features that make a good rower and she has often been described as a phenomenal athlete by her friends and colleagues.
A graduate of Stanford University, Ukogu plans to study medicine and hopes her performance at the Rio Games inspires young people across Africa and America to reach for their dreams.
“If I show people that nothing is impossible, if I can spread that message, I’ve done my job. A lot of people say, ‘How do you do all these things? How are you so determined?’ I know being in the U.S. has given me amazing opportunities, and I have to take advantage of them, not only for me, but for other people,” she said.
Ukogu also wants to promote rowing as a sport in Nigeria and the rest of Africa, where it does not really enjoy a strong following.
Ukogu’s plans could not have come at a better time as many African countries have recently made attempts to broaden their participation at the Olympic Games from their preferred sports of soccer, track, or boxing, where they do very well, to archery, cycling, gymnastics, and rowing.