Chierika Ukogu is a unique and inspirational woman for several reasons. She is twenty-three years old, a graduate of Stanford University, and a medical school hopeful. She’s also the Nigerian women’s single sculler for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
I was fortunate enough to row with Ukogu, or “Coco” as she’s known among friends, for four years at Stanford University. Ukogu is known for her outgoing and captivating personality as much as she is for her long limbs and intimidating presence on the water. During our freshman year at university, Ukogu began talking about representing Nigeria at the Olympic games. I can honestly say, I don’t think most of us thought it would happen.
Yet, here we are, and Ukogu is set to represent her home nation in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. She is a face not often seen on the international stage in rowing. In a very expensive and predominantly white sport, Ukogu is a woman of color.
“I decided I wanted to represent Nigeria after watching Isaaka, the men’s single sculler from Niger at the 2012 Olympic Games,” Ukogu explained, “He became known as the “sculling sloth” because of his performance, and I think it sort of further perpetuated the idea that black people are bad at rowing or that rowing is not a ‘black sport.’ It got me fired up. Having rowed for almost six years at that point, I saw continuing Isaaka’s legacy as the next logical step to shake things up in the rowing world”.
Shake things up she did. Her dreams to be in an Olympics games was and continues to be a game of persistence for Ukogu. In the beginning, she sent email after email to the Nigerian Rowing Association, hoping they’d respond to her inquiries; it took time.
“There was a Nigerian canoer named Johnathan Akinyemi who was a dual citizen [Nigerian and British] and competed in the London Games,” Ukogu said. “I tweeted him and he gave me contact information for the Nigerian Rowing Association. I think they didn’t take me seriously for the first two years of trying to make contact because I couldn’t offer a viable plan”.
Ukogu couldn’t offer a practical strategy, because she hadn’t yet learned how to scull; she had no results on the international stage to make the Nigerian Rowing Association take her seriously. So, with a great deal of determination, Ukogu put down the sweep oar upon her graduation from Stanford and picked up two much thinner and smaller sculling blades. The transition from an experienced and competitive sweep rower to a novice single sculler was far from easy.
“Transitioning into the single has been the most challenging part of my rowing career,” Ukogu mused. “It was a long road and a lot of the time I was just training blindly hoping everything would work out. I love the team aspect of rowing and working with a group of people toward a common goal. It was also really humbling to go from being an expert in sweep, back down to being a novice in sculling. In the beginning I struggled with patience. Spending time in the single is a key element of getting faster, but it was difficult to stay patient when I felt like I was too far behind my amazing teammates at Vesper”.
“It was a long road and a lot of the time I was just training blindly hoping everything would work out”.
In August, Ukogu found herself in Aiguebelette, France at the 2015 World Rowing Championships. She came sixth in the FD final, the first Nigerian rower to enter the international rowing stage and advance to a quarterfinal. Then, in October, Ukogu found herself crossing the finish line of the 2015 FISA African Olympic Qualification Regatta in third: she was officially heading to Rio. The significance of Ukogu’s accomplishment for other rowers of color is not lost on her
“Being a person of color in this sport definitely has its challenges,” Ukogu reflected. “The notion that rowing is a ‘white’ sport has caused some uncomfortable situations in the past. In the locker room, people ask me about my hair. How do I wash and style it? But I don’t think rowing is a ‘white sport, I just think it is an expensive sport – boats, uniforms, coaching, it doesn’t come easily. If we can figure out a way to meet these cost barriers, the sport would definitely be more diverse. We need more role models, more representation. Things in Africa are more nuanced, rowing doesn’t really have a legacy; you can’t sustain yourself as a rower. We’re [rowers from Africa] not taken seriously because there hasn’t been proper representation. I think things are definitely changing. We’ve got an amazing sculler out of Zimbabwe. South Africa has a great program. Northern Africa also does well. West, East, and Central Africans just haven’t been represented well yet”.
“I don’t think rowing is a ‘white sport, I just think it is an expensive sport”
Ukogu has that opportunity this summer though. As a rower of color myself, who is also half Nigerian, I am continually inspired by my dear friend and her incredible journey. Her plan for race day is simple; to help start someone else’s story.
“I hope to throw down some PRs on race day,” Ukogu said. “I’d like to showcase how far I’ve come from the Worlds [2015 World Rowing Championships] with more sculling under my belt. I also hope that some young girl or guy out there can watch me and feel the same way I felt when I saw Isaaka. I hope the next person [to represent Nigeria] is faster. I hope that my story can serve as a guide. There have been a lot of missteps on this journey but I’m better for it”.