‘People say wrestling is a man’s sports, but I was determined to excel’

Story of champion wrestler Odunayo Adekuoroye

Nigerian freestyle wrestler Odunayo Adekuoroye has won gold at the Commonwealth Games. Not once, but three times. From Ondo State, she first competed at the Commonwealth in 2010, at the age of 17. She won the bronze medal in the 48kg category that year, later going on to win gold in 2014, 2018 and 2022. Odunayo is an inspiration for young women all over the world, and on this International Women’s Day, she spoke to Breaker’s Oluwatoyin Omodara.

Growing up as a girl was exceedingly difficult because I came from a humble background, hawking after school hours when some of my friends were relaxing in the comfort of their parent’s house. I found succour in sport, especially athletics.

Fate had a different path for me, though, because I was dropped by the athletics team in 2010. I was disappointed, but I wanted to follow the school team at all costs. So I decided to join the wrestling team, and surprisingly I won a medal at the competition at the age of 15.

Odunayo Adekuoroye in Nigeria’s colour. Photo courtesy: Odunayo Adekuoroye

My parents were initially scared during my early days as a wrestler because of my health. I was the frail, feeble little girl. They opposed my choice of wrestling as they were of the belief that education is the goal.

People say wrestling is a man’s sports, but I was determined as a girl to excel in my newfound love. I had won a gold medal in the school sports, so I felt there was no going back for me. Back home, I trained with boys and sometimes competed with them.

I had the opportunity to engage in various competitions. Wrestling became my life. One of my proudest moments was winning my first medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 at the age of 17. I was in disbelief about what I had just achieved. It was overwhelming. I was so glad I had made my family and country proud. From zero, I became a hero.

Another historic moment was when I won the gold medal at the Glasgow commonwealth games in 2014. It was a dream come true.

A moment that I can never shake off was the 2020 Olympics. I was leading eight-zero, trashing my opponent. But in the twinkle of an eye, my opponent pinned me down. I lost the match. It was very traumatic for me — I had worked so hard and spent so much time practicing for the competition.

I was abused, and bullied severally on social media platforms because I lost the match. I almost quit but I had the belief that where there is a will there is a way. This edged me on, together with the encouragement from my pastor, friends and colleagues.

A major issue affecting the sport and other women wrestlers is the disparity in viewership of wrestling compared to other sports around the world. I thought It was only in Nigeria that this was prevalent until my friends and colleagues in the United States and other countries shared their experiences.

This is one area women must rally round to see that this imbalance is corrected for our greater good. We have to change the mentality of people through advocacy and awareness so that this trend can reduce. In Nigeria, I make bold to say that there are more successful female wrestlers than men wrestlers. So it is a good omen for women in sports.

My plan is to build a facility in Nigeria where future wrestlers, especially girls, will be trained so that they can rub shoulders and compete favourably with their peers around the world. I also want to help in paying school fees of some indigent and underprivileged students.

As we commemorate the International Women’s Day, I want to tell women all over the world to have a dream, be strong because they are intelligent and beautiful.

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