All the Paralympians are heroes, but Kingsley Ijomah is a special kind of hero to the UK adaptive community. His achievement has been accomplished with, through and supported by club rowing. We have all followed his odyssey with enthusiasm. His performance was prideworthy in the heats beating strong competition like the USA. Unfortunately, the heavy cross-winds took a massive toll on his polio-impaired arm that had to work extra hard to keep the boat straight which affected his subsequent repechage and B final. Many athletes would have been side lined with such an injury (he had to go to the hospital for an MRI), but he persevered proudly to enjoy and share every bit of paralympics experience that he could.
I got to sit down with him and ask him some questions about that very personal experience and his account of his very own Tokyo story was riveting:
- What Japanese word did you learn (and use the most)?
Myself and my girlfriend (and Assitant Coach) Dayana both out in Tokyo love languages, she was born and raised in Sweden to Brazilian parents and now lives in England (Swedish, Portuguese, English and some Norwegian) I was born in Nigeria, grown up in England, speak 3 Nigerian languages (Igbo, Yoruba, Pigeon) + English and some Portuguese and Spanish. In Tokyo we had a mini competition, who can get the maximum animated head bows from the Japanse volunteers, we had to go past the usual, good morning (ohayo gozaimasu) and thank you very much ( arigato gozaimasu ) something like “see you tomorrow” (mata ashitane) and since we checked our temperature daily, what is my temperature? (Watashi no taion wa?) made you a volunteer’s friend for life! With lots of head bows too.
- What fun fact about Japan did you learn?
Not sure how much of a fun fact this is, but the Japanese fold more papers than any other country, they call it Origami , it was literally everywhere, bathroom, bedrooms, entrance to training camp had over one thousand origami cranes hanging on the walls made my school children and some adults who love folding papers too if you make a wish it will come true after the 1000th origami. After 400th origami your wish usually turns into “I can’t wait to get these done!” and on your 1000th that wish comes true My deduction at least.
- ·What fun fact about the Paralympics did you learn?
The opening ceremony is actually a street party and you only see a glimpse of it on TV
- What most surprised you about Tokyo?
How efficiently everything worked, volunteers literally run everywhere, super helpful and always with a smile, I saw in practice a technique called shisa kanko (to see, point with finger and call it) an example, everyday buses go from the Village to the training Venue and back, the bus windows are not to be opened and so have a seal that will break if anyone opened the windows. On arrival at the training venue, a volunteer would go round the bus pointing at each seal and saying something at the same time to confirm what they saw and minimize errors, I only read about this in books was cool to see in practice done every day by different volunteers!
- What aspect of Tokyo was exactly how you imagined it?
Well, the toilet and all the gadgetry! I have to say the first day in the training camp it took me some time to figure out which button was the flush button as it was all written in Japanse. True story I had to take a photo to send out on WhatsApp group to ask which button is flush! Dayana having been to Japan 3 times sent back a photo with an arrow that said push this button!
- What surprised you most about the Paralympics?
How much pressure and how much nerve-racking a period in one’s life can be! it was a very unique experience! In the moment you find there is a different type of mental toughness, there is the mental toughness of endurance and riding the pain during the competition, but then there is the mental toughness of “clarity” and pushing doubt away outside of the race but still part of the competition, and you can see this in other athletes faces.
- What aspect of the Paralympics was exactly how you imagined it?
Just seeing incredible people doing what they love and trained for, representing their countries proudly whilst pushing their disabilities to the limits of what was thought possible.
- What was your favourite food you ate?
Where food is concerned, I refuse to take sides, I am faithful to all foods on equal measure! but I was frequent at the Japanese food section, there was food served from all different parts of the world, so you go through each section and pick what you needed for the training ahead of you.
- What point did you laugh the hardest and why?
I can’t remember the hardest laugh, but there was a time during training camp I was offered a traditional Kimono outfit to wear and I asked isn’t this just for women and the volunteers couldn’t stop laughing, I wore it for photo ops and they have it printed and it is in hanging in a Library in a town called Kisarazu about 45km from Tokyo, I am doing my bit for education in Japan Libraries!
- What item did you pack that you didn’t use?
Well believe it or not, with 31 – 34 degrees and humidity going up to 86% for some reason I thought I needed to take a gilet with me, it stayed neatly folded and never came out of my luggage
- What item do you wish you had packed?
More Nigerian pins to swap with other athletes would have been great! I became addicted to swapping pins with other countries and quickly ran out of NGR pins which were in hot demand! swapping pins was a good ice breaker.
- What was your scariest moment?
Whilst not finding the toilet flush was a little scary, we had to do covid test daily and have temperature taken every day multiple times, so the fear was always lingering, for the first time in the history of the games, qualifying wasn’t a 100% guarantee we also now had the covid hurdle to overcome. One day my temperature test was high when the temperature gun was used on my forehead, turned out my mask was creating additional heat, so they used my wrist instead (phew!) that was scary, just before the first heat.
- What would you have changed in your training preparation in retrospect?
More acclimatization to the heat and humidity, as usual, better boat setup, training intensively on swift boat and racing on Filippi presented some challenges in setup especially as there was no water session in Tokyo up until 4 days to start of the event.
- What would you have changed in your race execution in retrospect?
I don’t think I have any excuse here besides go faster! and stay away from any injuries!
- What is your favourite picture from your experience there?
It was a fab experience all round, there are few special pictures to me, one was of Kenya, Brazil and Nigeria (me) just for a moment forgetting about the pressures of the games and posing for a playful picture in the dining hall, another such escapism was of me and Ben Pritchard showing off our biceps after a competition, small memories captured in a moment that will last forever in our minds.
- If you had an extra day in Tokyo given to you (at the end), what would do you during that day?
We did have an extra day but due to COVID rules unfortunately we couldn’t leave the village, but there was a shopping venue on-site so most athletes went shopping, also used the time to collect freebies provided to athletes (Samsung mobile phones, customized with Paralympic loading on startup very cool, Trainers etc). Some went to village clinics, took advantage of free services to athletes, such as dental work, eye tests and prescription glasses given to athletes, prosthetics pre-measured and built for athletes who needed upgrades, heavily discounted by Ottobock, who were amazing. If it was possible to leave the village, we have friends in Tokyo would have been great to meet them and explore Tokyo with them, also we made lots of friends with volunteers who also talked about showing us Tokyo properly in the future.
- ·What are you most proud of from your Paralympic achievement?
Being the first Nigerian Paralympic rower in history to be at the games and the first male African Paralympic rower in the games, I hope to inspire others to pick up the sport and it was a huge privilege for me to represent my country of birth Nigeria whilst leaning on my adopted country England for its wealth in the knowledge of rowing its exceptional performances over the history of rowing.
- · What was one memorable piece of advice you received?
I was told repeatedly to remember you are supposed to be there! You deserve to be there, and never forget why you are there! and above all, be sure to soak it all in, be present and enjoy every moment, because when it is all done, you would have the memories forever.
- What advice would you give to athletes dreaming of becoming a “Paralympian”?
Train your mind and body on equal measure, never give up, and be yourself always, enjoying what you do makes you do more of it, don’t be afraid to fail because those who have never failed are those who have never tried anything, be proud of everything you do and always seek a lesson in all that you do. Surround yourself with people that inspire you, people on the same journey as you that bring out the best in you and offer a helping hand to others coming up after you.
- What was it like meeting your fellow Team Nigeria compatriots at the Games
Training on my own in England far away from the Nigerian team was challenging, getting to train with them in Tokyo was very inspiring. I saw athletes whose quality of life was greatly improved through sports, who now have a voice through sports, I saw Paralympic champions who are now coaches and team managers helping shape the future of sports and its athletes knowing fully well what is lacking and what needs doing. I met Paralympians for whom this was their 4th, 5th and 6th games well experienced and very welcoming to first-timer such as myself, they told me stories of previous games, things that went right and things that went wrong, I was able to borrow some of their confidence during the games in Tokyo and was better off for it. My circle of friends in paralympic sports went up by 100% making connections with not just the Nigerian teams but across Africa and other continents, that is some of the gains that will stay with me forever, friendships.
- Who do you want to thank for their support?
Oh gosh this is a very long list indeed, my route to Tokyo was most definitely not conventional and literally took a few villages! there is the Caversham village where I live, Marlow village where I train, Stratford-upon-Avon where I was and Evesham village where it all began, and in these places are the worlds best people who helped this Nigerian boy! aka Naija boy go from Lagos to Tokyo!Although the days of the amateur route to the Games is over and it now takes a lot more sponsorship and lottery funds help to back athletes with the 360-degree requirement needed to compete against the best of the best, never the less there was something magical about me taking that amateur route due to special circumstances, it allowed me to meet the kindest, most wonderful people from all over the country and beyond! willing to sacrifice time, resources and much more to help me qualify and make it to the games. Below is an incomplete list, it will be literally impossible to name them all:
- Dayana Alonso – Rowers widows is a term very well known in the world or rowing due to the number of times rowers are away from their partners all in the name of the sport, you managed to change this, you rose to the challenge to accompanying me to Tokyo, what an experience we both shared out there and you did so brilliantly as usually, forever with me, cycling up and down and time trials, arranging logistics, rigging and de-rigging boats, being one step ahead always whilst acting as a buffer between me and family, friends whilst out there, it would not have been possible without you! thank you for always being amazing in every way! Your birthday a day before the competition started was a good distraction, hope you liked your Origami decorations
- Knill Family ( Lisa, Andy, Tamzin, Crispin ) – It is hard for me to think of anyone who gave me so much time as the Knill family! from coaching, to boat sourcing and setups, to sports therapy and general logistics, thank you Lisa for coaching me, and really making so much possible, and for all the time you sacrificed consistently so I could get enough water sessions to stand a chance, you are very petit and yet a formidable force in every way! and always has my back
- GB Rowing – Every international competition GB rowing has always helped me when needed, during the games my boat was taken out to Tokyo with the GB trailer and also on-route back with GB trailer, thank you guys for always having my back, always nice to see a bit of home from home, even when I am representing a different country you still go out of your way to help me. I am forever grateful! Thanks, Ella Williot for developing a lot of us, and helping me right up until the games with sourcing boat after mine was on-route to Tokyo, you and all GB coaches and developers are the best of the best!
- Marlow Rowing Club – Marlow is simply the best rowing club ever! I was born in Nigeria but definitively made in Marlow! everyone really made it possible for me to get to Tokyo, I felt the love from the club and the adaptive rowers whilst out there, I cannot be any more proud to call Marlow my rowing club, Neil Galbraith thank you for all you did, rowing kit was a hit! Captain Ruth! thanks for the smooth operation! all adaptive coaches/volunteers for the amazing work you do! Naomi Riches thank for so much for all the advice beforehand, your experience really helped me big time! you were spot on about staying 100% away from social media.
- Eton Dorney Lake – For letting me practice my timed trials on a lake which produces a very different result compared to the flowing river, this went a long way and I really appreciated it!
- Roddy Slater – Strength and conditioning coach who forever changed the game for me, thank you so much Roddy! you made the lockdown training bearable and helped me believe to think way beyond limitations brought about by disability and building those gains one step at a time.
- Para Rowing Foundation (PRF) – PRF reached out all the way from the USA to help so many para rowers all over the world, with a genuine interest and love for the sport! they sponsored me, the best training camp I have ever been to was with them in Portugal, I have sponsored some equipment ( fixed seat ) and they have always been there whenever I needed them.
- Bruce power! – The reason I joined Marlow in the first place! thank you for all you do for the sport and adaptive rowing in general, way beyond just Marlow, in the world champs Plovdiv you and I were the only Team Nigeria! Thank you for all you do and continue to do for the sport.
- The list goes on….thank you all