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Fifty-three determined men and women will sport Nigeria’s green and white colors during the London Games — the second-biggest Olympic team hailing from Sub-Saharan Africa — carrying the nation’s hopes for the first gold medal in 16 years.
Amongst those bidding for Olympic glory is canoeist Johny Akinyemi, the first athlete to paddle for Nigeria at the world’s major sport event — the 23-year-old enters the race on July 29, just two days after the Games’ opening ceremony.
Born and raised in the UK to a Nigerian father and a British mother, Akinyemi’s path to the 30th Olympiad has been as winding as the whitewater courses he navigates.
He first started canoeing aged 12 in northern England and in 2006 he emerged as the junior British national champion. But a year later he gave up his top ranking in the country of his birth to compete for the country of his heritage following a visit to his father’s homeland — a trip he describes as a “baptism of fire.”
“It was just such a great experience,” remembers Akinyemi of his time in the West African country. “Just to see where your roots are, to see your heritage and what makes you a person — there’s a Nigerian boy within me and there’s a British boy within me, I’ve only seen the British side of things until I went back to Nigeria and saw my Nigerian heritage and that’s something I’m proud of.”
Akinyemi says people in Nigeria “welcomed him with open arms,” making it easier for him to embrace his roots and change his Olympic allegiance.
“It made a lot of sense to me because there’s always been questions about my identity which has been unanswered until I started to look into my family and my family history and stuff like that and gone back to my roots.”
A talented athlete, Akinyemi wants to leave his mark in this year’s Olympics. In 2008 Akinyemi came agonizingly close to going to the Beijing Games but missed out on qualification by a single place.
That failure made him more determined to train even harder to improve his power, technique and speed and be able to compete at the top level in the physically demanding sport of canoeing.
In February this year his Olympic dream finally came true when he made Nigerian history by winning the 2012 African slalom championships and securing a place for London.
Akinyemi says he will never forget that moment in time.
“It was such a great feeling getting an Olympic spot because I worked so hard for it — it took so long coming after the 2008 Olympics,” he explains. “It’s just such a good feeling that you actually achieved what you wanted to go out there and do.”
Akinyemi’s victory in this year’s African slalom championships came after he beat Benjamin Boukpeti, a household name in canoeing who is also a dual citizen competing for a faraway country.
Boukpeti, a bronze medalist at the Beijing Games, was born and raised in France but has chosen to represent his father’s home country of Togo.
“Most people didn’t think I would beat Benjamin but to go out and do it was such a good feeling. I surprised myself a little bit even with that one,” says Akinyemi.
“It’s really good to have such high competition in Africa,” he adds.
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Now, just days before his quest for Olympic success gets underway, Akinyemi admits he is “pretty nervous” but adds that he is looking forward to his first Olympiad.
He says he’s determined to give his best and try to win for his country and make his father proud.
“If I won a medal it would mean everything, all the hard work would be worth it,” he says. “My dad would be so proud because he was proud of me for qualifying for the Games and he spent a lot of time in Africa helping me get to where I am today. So I think it would be really good, it would almost be winning it for him.”
But win or lose, Akinyemi, who is also studying to be an accountant after his sporting career is over, wants to make sure that Nigeria stays on the canoeing map. He says there is a lot of potential in Nigeria for the sport and many more athletes can follow on his footsteps.
“We need to now push it to develop more canoe slalom athletes, to develop the canoe slalom world in Nigeria,” he says. “I just think we have so much potential. It’s deep rooted in Nigerian culture. We just need to get the kids and the youngsters into a competitive environment, into the right types of packs and canoes so they can race.”
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published by CNN African Voices. CNN African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa’s most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.