Mary Onyali-Omagbemi popularly called ‘the Queen of Nigerian sprints’ is a valuable sprinter of all time. She has bagged many honours in her chosen career as an athlete with several laurels that include two Olympic bronze medals. Mary Onyali has made Nigerians proud in the athletic sphere. The beautiful mother of two, who turned 50 this year, opens up to VANESSA OKWARA and FAVOUR NWANZE on her memorable moments in sports, being married to a fellow sprinter and love for fashion
Mary Nkemdilim Onyali-Omagbemi came from a family of four, two girls and two boys. Her father passed away when she was very young. The eldest of four children, Onyali took on the responsibility of caring for her younger siblings. Customarily with most Nigerian parents, her mother encouraged her to focus on her academics and emphasized sports as an extra-curricular activity. Luckily, Mary attended an elementary school where sports were part of the curriculum and took the opportunity to participate in all possible sporting activities, which she continued through high school.
Recognition came for all her efforts as she’s regarded as a foremost and most disciplined athlete. Her laurels include two Olympic bronze medal, gold medal from the All African Games in Kenya and Cairo and World Junior Athletics Championship, Greece.
She performed exceptionally well in the All-Africa Games, winning a total of seven individual medals in the short sprints. Her consecutive Olympic appearances from 1988 to 2004 made her the first Nigerian to compete at five Olympics. This feat was equaled by table tennis players, Bose Kaffo and Segun Toriola four years later in Beijing, PR China.
She made a name for herself in the track and field world, establishing several prestigious marks on the way. Popularly called the Queen of Nigerian sprints and is still ranked in the top 10 of the collegiate all-time list in both the 100 and 200m.
Back in the days women were not encouraged to go into sports, so what inspired you to start sprinting?
The norm in Nigeria and Africa is that women should not get involved in sports because they felt you would look masculine, you won’t be able to get married, you will be wayward and you would just not amount to anything. But I think my excessive energy and stubbornness finally paid off by insisting and believing in myself and what I wanted to do and eventually convinced my mom, a single parent who was reluctant to let me go because Africans believe that women are to go to school, graduate, get a job, get married and do the normal things normal people do but Mary was not having it. I had to chart my own terrain which I am following today. It took my mum till I departed Nigeria in 1984 for a four-year scholarship in the US to actually see what I was seeing and she believed and just sort of gave up and she is happy today.
Were you able to combine getting good grades with sprinting?
That was actually the reason why my mom was insisting that I would not partake in sports because she felt like every other parent that I would not pay attention to my studies. Truly if it weren’t for her insisting and pressurizing that I keep my grades up or get out of sports, I would have probably gone the other way because I would have given 80 percent to sports and 20 percent to academics, so we had a bet that if I wanted to stay in sports I had to keep my grades up and me loving sports, I just had to keep them up.
When did you notice your love for sports?
Sports came naturally to me and it actually found me; I did not look for it. It found me in the sense that during the process of my excessive energy and playfulness, just wanting to partake in activities outdoor, I just happened to dabble into it because anytime we had any sporting activity be it running or anything, I would always come out tops and they would reward me with sweets or biscuits or even a pat on the back and I was like this feels good! I would get a lot of goodies so I just kept on doing it; I thought it was fun but then it changed to be a lifestyle and then became my life.
You are called the ‘Queen of Nigerian sprints’, how does that make you feel?
Sometimes embarrassed, I get bashful. I am an extremely shy person but on the track and during performance the alter ego of me comes out. I get embarrassed when people say it but it is a talent that God gave me; I really cannot turn it down especially when the world sees me as such and I really appreciate.
In your foray in the sports world, what is that moment you can never forget?
It has to be Atlanta 96 where I got my first individual bronze medal. My first bronze medal was in Barcelona 92, the four by one girls’ race but that was ‘our’ medal. It was four people that contributed to that medal and I wanted one for me, myself and I and I was able to get that in the 200m race in Atlanta.
You turned 50 this year and you don’t look it, can you tell us what makes you look so young?
Yes, I turned 50, March 7 this year. Well I don’t know, I think it’s in the genes. In my family we are all petite in nature and I would say that what helped me to maintain it is my discipline. I was much disciplined while I was competing; I lived by the three D’s which were ‘Dedication, Discipline and Determination’. I have lived and played by these three D’s and it is still helping me today. I had to be disciplined with what entered my mouth, as they say you are what you eat so I disciplined myself with what I ate during my career and till now.
What’s your fashion style like?
It’s simple but nice.
Are you a makeup person?
I am not a heavy makeup person; this is the maximum you can see on my face. I once had to makeup to do a photo shoot and I was so uncomfortable. All kinds of stuff were padded on my face and when they were done I couldn’t recognize myself again, I had to quickly do the shoot and take it off so I am not a heavy makeup person. I do not do all those big money cosmetics, just give me ‘Dudu Osun’ and I will be fine.
Have you started any mentorship programme for young ladies aspiring to be like you?
Yes, even when I was competing I was into motivational speaking, sometimes I would go to schools, companies; MTN had called me once to give them some lecture on leadership because I was really active in sports. I was the captain of Team Nigeria on three occasions: Olympics, African Games and the Commonwealth Games. I do a lot of speaking and I also have a foundation, Mary Onyali Sports Foundation (MO Sports) I use that to export our young student athletes that are highly talented to US universities with scholarships which was what the US government did for me so I am extending it to others.
If the country were to make you the sports minster, what would you change?
It would have to be in the youth development aspect because what is killing our sports industry is not having that revolving door. When an athlete is nearing retirement age, there has to be three to eight young persons that can replace the person; so there has to be a revolving door to replace the aging athlete. When I was retiring, I was sounding it in interviews that there was a need to go back to the grass root but they did not pay attention to me, perhaps they felt I was too young or I did not know what I was saying and it later came to bite us. Like today in athletics we only have Blessing Okagbare when we are supposed four to five others.
Your 200m record last a very long time!
Yes it did, Blessing Okagbare broke it in February this year and I was extremely happy because I wanted her to break it. Even if another country breaks it tomorrow at least the first time it went to Nigeria.
You are married to a fellow sprinter, Victor Omagbemi, how has it been like?
It made our career a whole lot easier and it extended both our careers but mine went little bit longer maybe because I am a woman and women usually have a small window but we take advantage of it. It was easier because he understands me and I understand him, if I had to travel, he would understand but as a woman, you will have to end up at home, make babies, make our home, I had to hurry up and retire.
Did any of your children follow your footsteps?
Yes, our two children are into sports. Our daughter is 21-years-old and on Sports/ Academic scholarship at University of Houston, Texas, she’s a sprinter too. Our son, 11, is also very active in all sports in his school. Of course we encourage them to partake in any sport of their choice but won’t force them if they choose not to.
What other hobbies do you have outside sprint?
I’m a fashionista; I love fashion. I love clothing; I just love to look and feel good. I am not a brand chaser to wear the Gucci’s or Armani’s, just whatever looks good and makes me feel comfortable.
Immediately two years after my retirement, I already knew what I was going to do. I went into sports clothing, I manufactured it from scratch. It’s called Yali-Yali Sportswear. There are two reasons why I went into it, one was to make it affordable for the young and upcoming athletes to wear and feel good because during my time I wore all the sports wears from Nike to Adidas to Puma. I was their brand ambassador. Like I said being a fashion loving person, for our athletes to compete at the highest level, how you look and feel contributes to your success.
Where’s your best vacation spot?
My best country so far has to be Paris for so many reasons, one, I love their fashion; their clothes fit my body perfectly. Whenever I go there I go crazy; I go on a shopping spree and secondly because they just love me there. Any time I go there to compete, they just love me and they turn my name from Onyali to ‘Onyale’.
Has sports paid off financially?
Of course! Sports is a high yielding industry. There is $500 billion market in sports yearly just that Nigerians do not know how to tap into it yet. That is the reason why I came back to educate them on how to go into it. Sports paid me; having a single mother I was able to take care of her, built her a house in Lagos and I am doing one in the village. I have my own place in the US and Nigeria and I am not trying to blow my trumpet but it was very beneficial and you have to have done it at your highest level; as they say you are as good as your last race.
Do you prefer African or foreign designers?
Like I said I can wear anything; just make it for me and I look good in it then I will wear it.
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