PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – She stared down the mountain at a chute of ice, wondering if she had lost her mind for agreeing to what she was about to do.
Akuoma Omeoga was a college sprinter, not a bobsledder. She didn’t know anything about bobsled growing up, only that it was a Winter Olympics sport and she remembers watching the movie “Cool Runnings” as a kid.
But she had made a pact, and so here she was, preparing to hurtle herself down the track in Park City, Utah.
She had never pushed a real bobsled before, much less zoomed 80 mph down a winding course. She hadn’t even practiced jumping into a moving bobsled. All she kept thinking was, What happens if I don’t make it inside?
But the Olympics were 13 months away and so ready, set, go.
“Apparently, I screamed, but I don’t remember,” Omeoga says.
She can laugh about her first run now because the ripple effect of a life decision opened a door she never could have dreamt.
The St. Paul native, graduate of Irondale High School and former Gophers track athlete is part of the first Nigerian women’s bobsled team at the Olympics. Competition begins Tuesday (5:50 a.m. Central time).
Omeoga is a first-generation immigrant to parents who came to the United States for college, fell in love, married and raised four daughters, Akuoma their youngest.
Omeoga, 25, serves as the brakeman on the two-woman team. She pushes the bobsled at the top, stops it at the bottom and keeps her head down in between. This whole experience still feels surreal to her.
“This is crazier than anything I could have imagined,” she says, standing outside the Athletes Village in the mountain cluster.
The Nigerian bobsledders have become Olympic stars before ever competing. They are sponsored by Visa and Under Armour, been featured in a Beats by Dre ad campaign, and have danced with Ellen DeGeneres as guests on her show. They are embraced as heroes in Nigeria, even though many in the African nation have never seen the sport and few understand it.
The team brought modest expectations to the Olympics in terms of results. They envision a broader impact.
“We want to promote a positive image for Nigeria,” Omeoga says.
From there to here
To trace her steps here, Omeoga starts after graduation from the U, where she ran track for four years. She landed a job in human resources at a Twin Cities company but needed a change, something outside of her comfortable cocoon. She considered moving to Los Angeles but “then I realized I was going to be broke.”
She settled on Houston because it was warm and the cost of living more manageable. She moved in the summer of 2016 despite not having a job or any friends there.
A family acquaintance gave her the number of a friend who lives in Houston. Omeoga texted the woman and they met for dinner. The woman, Seun Adigun, had Nigerian lineage, as well. She casually mentioned over dinner that she was working on a big project but didn’t elaborate.
A few months later, Adigun called Omeoga and asked if she would be interested in joining a bobsled team. Omeoga had been considering joining an adult soccer league to stay active so she figured, sure, why not bobsled.
“I really didn’t put too much thought into it,” she says.
Adigun invited Omeoga and another woman, Ngozi Onwumere, to her home for what Omeoga describes as a “Bobsled 101 meeting.”
Adigun was a member of the U.S. women’s bobsled team as a brakeman in 2015. She also represented Nigeria as a sprinter at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. All three women competed in track in college.
Adigun created a video and power-point presentation that explained bobsled. She went over every aspect of the bobsled because they would need to know how to repair it.
“I’ve never worked on a car before,” Omeoga says. “I don’t think I even know how to change a tire.”
She envisioned bobsledding being like a roller coaster. All fun, no work. This was not that. The goal, Adigun told them, was the 2018 Olympics. Their meeting took place in October 2016.
“I was just laying there looking up at the ceiling thinking, ‘Yeah, it would be cool, but let’s be realistic,’ ” Omeoga says.
Meet the Mayflower
Adigun, the driver, was dead serious. At their first practice, she brought a wooden cart that didn’t look like a bobsled. She called it the Mayflower.
They practiced at the indoor football facility at the University of Houston. Day after day, they worked on learning to push the cart to simulate the start of a bobsled run, which is called “hitting the sled.”
Omeoga wanted to hit it all right. Her arms were covered with bruises because she kept using the wrong technique.
“I hated it,” she says. “This little wooden devil that you’re calling the Mayflower, I really hate her. I don’t want to use her again. I don’t trust her.”
She found the work physically draining. Bobsleds weigh about 350 pounds without the crew, and Omeoga was a sprinter, not a shot putter. She had to gain weight and get stronger to survive.
They slowly improved their technique and strength. They also launched a GoFundMe page to help offset the financial burden of starting a team from scratch.
They needed to buy an Olympic-caliber bobsled at some point, which can cost as much as $50,000, and that doesn’t include the runners or other necessary gear.
As an Olympic newcomer, their team would qualify automatically if they competed in five races on three different tracks over two seasons.
They spent 14 days at the Park City track in January 2017, finishing last in the competition. That was their first time on a real track and actually jumping inside the sled.
“I thought it was going to be nice and fun, and it wasn’t,” Omeoga says. “I was in complete shock when I got done. The ride was terrible.”
They completed their Olympic qualification by competing in Calgary and Whistler, British Columbia.
Omeoga described the Whistler track as “insane” because it was fast and scary and caused a lot of crashes, including her first and only wreck. They made it unscathed.
“You hear the ice scrapping against your helmet,” she says. “It wasn’t terrible, but I would rather not crash.”
The Games and the future
She doesn’t know if she will continue in the sport after the Olympics. The time commitment isn’t conducive for holding a job, and the physical toll on her body is significant. Either way, she hopes to maintain some role with Nigeria’s Olympic federation.
Her parents, sisters and a group of family and college friends are traveling here to cheer and support her. Her oldest sister, Ije, said family members still don’t know the “ins and outs” of bobsledding, but they’re not surprised by her success in the sport.
This will be the first time anyone in the family has watched her compete in person.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be terrified, scared,” Ije said, smiling. “No, we’re super excited. We’re happy and just really proud of her that she’s been able to do all of this on her own and with her other teammates.”
Adigun chose Omeoga as her partner with Onwumere serving as the alternate. Omeoga considers herself “halfway to being an Olympian.” She believes she needs to compete before she earns the official title.
Her perspective will feel different than it did 13 months ago, when she looked down an icy mountain for the first time, unsure of what was about to happen. She won’t scream this time.