One of the best para power-lifters in the history of Nigeria, Paul Kehinde, is angry government hasn’t done enough to ameliorate the pains the special athletes face every day despite winning more laurels for the country than their able-bodied counterparts. He told AJIBADE OLUSESAN that they would not be deterred in their bid to project Nigeria’s image positively despite the shabby way they are treated by the country.
As an athlete who has won everything what’s the motivation behind your setting up a foundation?
I set up the Paul Kehinde Foundation in Nigeria to encourage more powerlifting athletes. They are going to be tomorrow’s champions in Nigeria. We are disciplined, determined, and train hard, like there’s no tomorrow. Truly there is no excuse not to achieve your dreams. I usually use myself as a case study to encourage others.
You seem to be unhappy with Nigerian government with the way they have treated special athletes?
The government does not recognise us or what the special athletes have done for this country. For instance, previous presidents have done a little in the past by recognising us, but the present government has not even deemed it fit to call us to a reception after our performance at the last Rio Paralympics, no one has told us that this is what the Nigerian government has for us in terms of reward, it is very sad and discouraging. We know what our counterparts in other countries enjoy; even those that did not win any medal have been rewarded by their governments. We seem to be nothing to those in authorities, they know that many of us are not doing anything, my life is not significantly different from when I was not yet a Paralympian or become Commonwealth and world record holder, and it is so painful.
Despite this neglect, you guys still do better than other Nigerians who are not physically challenged in major tournaments…
I don’t allow all of those things happening to us to affect my performance because I believe that if there is no money today, it will come tomorrow. I know that if I work hard and realise my dream, despite the challenges I know that if government does not appreciate me, people that value us will come to my rescue.
Apart from money what exactly do you guys want?
We need accommodation; we need job so that we can be earning salaries, there are so many things we need because of our situation but accommodation is very important. Wheelchairs and crutches which will help us to move from one place to another instead of getting stuck in a place without help.
But some of you are employed by some states….
Many of us are not employed; just few are under the employment of some states. Those who have jobs are paid peanuts, many of them cannot even afford house rent, I can tell you that so many of us are staying inside the Lagos National Stadium.
Are you really saying some of your colleagues are living in the National Stadium, Lagos?
I still thank God that I am not staying at the stadium; I have my own apartment somewhere in Ogun State. But many of us that we are training together are actually sleeping in the stadium.
It must be very tough for you guys to survive…
We are living from hand to mouth. Before you go to a competition you would have owed so many people because you will need money to come to training, to eat and do some other things, you can’t be training on empty stomach. It is hard to convince young athletes to come to the stadium and train, I have a lot of headache encouraging these young lads because they don’t have money. One of them came to me a while ago to tell me that he had no money to eat and he had been training, I had to give him words of encouragement not to give up, that it had happened to me before, that the sufferings he is going through would end one day.
How did you get into the sport?
Somebody brought me to coach Aare Feyisetan who has helped me developed my talent. This is what I have b e e n d o – i n g since I was a young lad, I used to lift weight in my neighbourhood in Ketu, Lagos State, back then until I met coach Aare in 2005 and by 2006 I attended National Sports Festival Gateway Games, I went to my first international competition in 2011, the event was held in Dubai (United Arab Emirates) where I won my first international medal, it was a silver and since then I have been the champion of my class.
You must be popular in your neighborhood in Ketu as a physically challenged person lifting weight back then?
Of course yes, I was popular in that area before coach Kehinde Adetayo brought me to coach Aare. It was easy for me to breakthrough on time because this is what I love to do right from my childhood, it is my passion. I was really a local champion because people would come to my house to beg me to go and compete somewhere and they would even place a bet on me, and I was challenging people who were not disabled and I was beating them, I was really the only physically challenged person lifting weight around my area.
Were your parents not worried that as a physically-challenged child, you could get hurt by lifting weight?
My mum did not like the idea of me lifting weight because she believed I could fall sick because of that. She actually wanted me to go to school and I was still nursing that ambition before she died, I got discouraged after her death because there was no money for me to go to school. My mum really did not like it when I was lifting weight around my neighbourhood but she changed her mind when coach Adetayo introduced me to coach Aare and she saw what I was doing, she got encouraged and she was even giving me money to come to the stadium. I am sad today that she died early, and was unable to reap the fruit of her labour.
When was that time you felt ‘oh how I wish I am not physically challenged’?
A lot of times, but challenges come at different times even to those who are not disabled For instance, when I was growing up I used to feel bad that when I was going somewhere with my friends, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with their pace, I would be the last, there are places they would go and wouldn’t allow me follow them because they thought that Paul is physically-challenged. The one that pained me most that I almost cried was when a girl I wanted to get married to took me to her parents, and I was shocked when they told me point blank that their daughter could not marry me, they said instead of their child to get married to me she would rather remain single, It was so tough for me to accept that.
You are married can you tell us about your wife?
It is always difficult for disabled to have friends talk-less of having girlfriends who is not disabled for a wife. But by the Grace of God and through the dint of hard-work, I started courting my wife Eniola Kehinde who is an able bodied person in 2015 and in 2017 we got married and are blessed with two children Nathaniel a boy and Victoria a girl. We both live in Ketu, Alapere, from where we joined the Rapid Bus Transport BRT to the Stadium to train every day. But today God has provided me with my own car a new accommodation which makes things much easier for me.
But can you also do to her those things people who are not physically challenged do with their spouses? Why not?
I only have challenges with my legs; not with my brain, leg of any other parts of my body. I can talk to her, be romantic, to let her feel that the person beside her loves her so much.
What should Nigerians expect from you at the next Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan?
If we are well motivated and with the promise the Minister of Sports made us, I will smash the world record by creating a new one that will last for a decade or more. My target in this sport now is to set a record that will be unbreakable in the next 10 or 20 years to come and I believe that with determination and the help of God, I will achieve it.
Special athletes have done well, I am sure you will want to plead with the authorities to focus more on you guys?
Yes, I plead with the government to invest more in special athletes, because if you look at it, we win more medals for the country, we are the ones that don’t let the nation’s investment in sports go in vain. I want them to believe more in the special athletes, there is no competition that we will go and not pick medals, we are number one in the world, so we need more encouragement.