Uche Eke will be the first Nigerian to be competing in the gymnastics event of the Olympics as he makes his debut on Saturday, July 24, at the Ariak Gymnastics Centre, Tokyo. He told CHARLES OGUNDIYA his goal of getting to the finals and probably win a medal. Excerpts… Additional information from AIPS
How does it feel qualifying for the Olympics?
I pinched myself, ‘am I dreaming?’ I really did it! Then I quickly re-watched the video that I made right before, like in the bathroom, saying, ‘this is the day to see if I’m an Olympian or not’. I always do like these quick video snippets of just me in a bathroom mirror saying, let’s watch this after and see if I’m happy or sad. So I watched that and I was happy. It was like literally 20 seconds, and then people came up to me and started jumping. I was just super excited.
Since you qualified for the Olympics and about representing Nigeria, what would you say are your goals?
I’m on a new goal now. I’m thinking about competing at the Olympics. I’m motivated and ready to go. There are some routines I want to do and I have to push and fight to get to that level to do it and the progress I’m making right now is really good. My goal is to complete those routines and hit them to my best ability and if I do it how I want and dream it to be, then I’ll be able to make top eight, which is making the final. That’s my goal. Overall, no matter what happens, I want to be at least top 25 in the world. I’m not nervous. I’m excited to just lay it all out, swing as hard as I can, as cautiously and as freely. I have support from Nigeria now, people watching and wanting me to do well, and that’s what I thrive upon.
Out of all the six men’s artistic gymnastic events; floor, pommel horse, vault, rings, parallel bars and horizontal bar, which one do you think will give you the edge in Tokyo?
I will say pommel horse and horizontal bar. Those are the ones I feel like I have the best chances for individual event finals. I don’t intend to make same mistake that cost me a gold in horizontal bar at the African Games.
How will it feel winning a medal at the Olympics?
I’m speechless. I imagine it, you know. It would be like ‘wow! I put my whole life towards this and I did it. If I get a gold medal I’m coming straight back to Nigeria with it, and I’ll say we are building a gym now.
When COVID-19 came, how did you cope especially with all the restrictions?
I actually thought of quitting because my kind of person, I can’t really sit in a place. However, the thought of giving up really pissed me off so I started thinking about h o w t o bounce back.
How do you help in developing the sport in Nigeria?
I want to get into branding, I want to find some sponsorships. I want to help take gymnastics up not just for myself but for everyone.
How do you intend to continue supporting yourself and progress in your career?
I’m going to get a job and figure out how I’m going to fund myself, that’s where I’m at now. There’s no more support from school, it’s all me. And I’m not going to expect my parents to give me anything anymore. I’ll find another way. I like doing activities. I tried modeling a little bit, they said I’m 5’10”, I’m too short. I’m going to find my way to model somehow still. I like doing all types of things. I like doing everything media related. It’s fun and what’s the point of life if you’re not having fun.
What do you love about gymnastics?
I love High Bars the most because it gives me a lot of nerves, you can jump up and you could be dead the next second. I said that as a joke but in that event, you need a lot of practice. Practice makes perfect. I love Pommel Horse too; it is all about bouncing and a very serious event. In Parallel Bars, you are not afraid of hold- ing yourself, y o u don’t have t i m e to think a b o u t a n y – thing, you just keep on going and it requires a lot of practice as well. Parallel Bars is actually the weakest out of my three best events, it’s just an event I keep telling myself that I should do the best I could and get what comes out of it.
There were different opinions from your parents about what you need to do. While your mum allowed you to take part in sports, your dad wanted education. How did you handle it?
I have been doing gymnastics since I was four years old, so it has been part of my life. At a time my dad said to me that if I failed my classes, then I would have to drop gymnastics, and since I didn’t want to drop my favourite sport, I told him I was not going to fail. So I started working a lot harder on both my studies and gymnastics. In the U.S. as an athlete, you go to college because of your sport. Based on mum and dad’s difference of opinions, I was able to use that to my own advantage to get the best out of education and sports. It’s like a win-win situation for me from both ends. I was also lucky to have gone to University of Michigan which is arguably number one in sports. I was happy to make mum and dad happy. Although it was more strenuous, I am glad to have achieved my goals of graduating and also making headway in gymnastics.
How have you been able to combine your education and sports?
I just make sure I don’t fail my classes. If I have to miss practice to pass in class, then I do that. If I know that if I miss practice, it will help me to do well in my exams, then I go for such option. It is more of doing whatever it takes for me not to fail; I do whatever it takes to get good grades although not necessarily hurting my sports.
You did track and field at some point, why did you settle for gymnastics and not athletics?
I actually did athletics while in high school, and not college because I could not combine both with the stress of studies. In high school I did track and field for two reasons: one, I believed it would help prolong my career as a gymnast and secondly, they always picked me up late from school, so I needed something to keep me busy. Oftentimes they come to pick me up by 5pm and I will be all alone from 2.45pm each day, so I needed something to keep me busy because I would still be going for practice by 5.30pm. I wanted to go for long distance running but I ended up as a sprinter. I did 100m and 200m and was at the Penn Relays to compete at some point. It was there it dawned on me that I didn’t really do track and field for the main reasons I actually started it. I did high jump too and won some medals, but the truth is I did track and field as a sport rather than use it to help my career as a gymnast. If I could go back again, I would go for long distance races. My best time as a 100m runner was 11secs plus, maybe 11.02secs or 11.04secs, but I didn’t run below 11secs.
Why Nigeria? Was it that your father compelled you to compete for Nigeria or it was your personal decision?
It was my own personal decision. I am from Nigeria and I noticed that gymnastics has not been getting much attention in the country so I want to expose it with my performance. I have been coming to the country every year and I know a lot about Nigeria.
What interests you about the country?
Everything in the country, it’s been an eye-opener for me as a young man. Everyone always tries their best to make it and be great in life. You have to work to eat; nothing is on a platter of gold. If you want something, you have to work for it, that’s the spirit of a Nigerian anywhere in the world.
How have you been able to discipline yourself against other vices like drugs, alcohol, oil, and women?
I keep to myself. I don’t do drugs, alcohol, and so on. Some people find it difficult to say no due to peer pressure; I am the one to say no to your face, that’s who I am. If I want to do something, I do and if I don’t, then I won’t. It is difficult persuading me to do what I don’t want to do. I always look at the positives and negatives of whatever I want to do and weigh both before going into it. I don’t see any positives in drugs, alcohol, and wild girls, so it is very easy for me not to engage in them. Sometimes I go out on dates like every other young man, but I will not go out if I know it is going to ruin me. That’s what some people don’t understand- saying no to what doesn’t benefit you. If I have to go out apart from for my training or studies, then I must work extra hard to compensate for the lost time..