I've had about three weeks to gather myself after what I can only describe as a spectacle at the Nigerian Olympic Trials. For days, I tried to rationalise what happened with the electronic timer "malfunctioning" during my race, but some things are better left unexplained because they shouldn't be condoned in the first place.
But as I thought more critically about the situation and its implications, I felt this incident was perhaps a teachable moment. Not just for me, but for everyone in the arena that day - officials, athletes and fans alike.
So I decided to put pen to paper to share my thoughts.
The time I returned after running what felt like the of the best races in my career.
That feeling you get when you've sacrificed a lot only to receive nothing in return. That feeling you get when you speak and you're not heard. That feeling of helplessness.
One word to capture how I felt on that fateful day.
Empty, disappointed and angry, I could hear "the welcome back to Naija" taunts. Nigeria - a place where anything can happen. And when the situation is bad, people would be quick to tell you to suck it up because it could be worse.
Well, in my book, there's nothing worse than negligence. How long are we going to continue this way? No matter how fortunate or prepared or put-together you think you are as an individual, you could lose everything in an instant in a society that condones negligence.
Now back to that fateful day.
I remember feeling relieved to be back home. I got out of bed, and my body felt great. The weather was OK - nothing out of the ordinary. The Yaba College of Technology track was quite familiar to me. When I got to the arena, there was a warm feeling in the air. I chatted with the legendary sprinter, Gloria Alozie, who had held the women's 100m hurdles record for decades. We exchanged pleasantries, and she wished me well. She has always been such a class act.
Before I headed for the trials, my coach and I had talked about making a play for the African record. We had been working all year fine-tuning all the little things. And I felt the most confident I've been in years. I was ready.
So I stepped out for the first heat, and it was a breeze. It was done as quickly as it began, and I returned a decent time of 12:54 seconds thereabout. After the race, I felt like I could hit another gear. I sensed that there was a chance that I could actually make history in this arena. I wanted to do it in front of the home fans who have supported me since I was a junior athlete.
The finals took place a couple of hours later. This time I got out of my blocks quicker than I had done in the heat. The hurdles came in quick succession, but I was in total control. It felt like I was gliding over them. I could feel it. I was flying.
From the corner of my eye, I couldn't help but notice that the display clock stayed at Zero. I had never experienced that before. I was certain I was in some sort of mirage. So when I finished the race, I briskly walked back to the display to do a double-check. Perhaps it was the adrenaline that clouded my vision, I thought.
Lo and behold! It was not a mirage. The time on the display unit was, in fact, zero. My body grew limp. That initial rush of adrenaline that I felt during the race was quickly replaced with the worst emotions - betrayal, hate, sadness, and paranoia. God! Why was this happening to me, I muttered. I was shattered. I needed to have a good cry, so I left the arena. Afterwards, I called my coach Lasena Golding-Clarke, and I wouldn't forget what she told me. She said, "They know what you were capable of. They saw it. Even though they assumed that they didn't time it, now you know you have it in you. If they don’t record it at home, they’ll record it elsewhere."
Today, it has been almost a month since the incident. And what I find puzzling is the fact that no one gave an official explanation with regards to the faulty timer. No official apology has been tendered. How do you explain an electronic timer malfunctioning for only one race in an entire competition? Think about it.
The reason I ask isn't to stir up trouble. If I wanted to, I could have done it at the arena immediately after the race. But that is not me. I hate being that extra. And personally, I cannot stand people who are drama queens. Even though this mishap has cost me a lot as a professional athlete in terms of my global ranking and a performance bonus, my mentality has been one of not crying over spilt milk.
That said, the reason I ask is for the sole reason that we must begin to hold ourselves accountable as a people. We cannot afford to keep up this culture of sweeping things under the rug and expect our situation to be better.
That isn't black excellence.
When I started running track a little over seven years ago, I remember how resentful my parents were about the athletics ecosystem in Nigeria. They too were athletes in their time, and they would constantly tell me stories about how badly they were treated.
We need to break that cycle, people. And I've decided to play my part by talking about issues openly with the hope that we can all work together to transform the state of athletics in the country.
They know what you were capable of. They saw it. Even though they assumed that they didn't time it, now you know you have it in you. If they don’t record it at home, they’ll record it elsewhere.
That said, I'm definitely more clear-eyed about the situation now. My crying stopped the day after the incident - I promise. It has happened, I've gotten a chance to say my piece. Now, we move.
If anything, the mishap of that day has motivated me. My hunger and determination to succeed are at an all-time high. And I'm not a stranger to adversity. In fact, I feed off of it.
Look, I've come a long way from where this journey began for me. I grew up in Ijebu-Ode without the basics. I wasn't supposed to be here. My first love was football. I never even tried out for athletics until my mid-teens. As a junior athlete, in 2015, I attended the African Games in Brazzaville, Congo. I wasn't even supposed to be at that meet because there were people much faster than me. But I knew I had trained hard and dedicated myself, and I was confident in my God-given talent. By the time I got to the finals of the Games, I had broken the record, and my performance earned me a scholarship to the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP).
When I got to El Paso, I had a hard time coping. The food, culture, and language were so different. At some point, I considered returning to Nigeria. I felt so uncomfortable with the disparity in accents. It went as far as me having to lip-read my coach all semester long during my first semester at UTEP. Half of the time, I had no clue what she was saying in training. I was the clueless African girl that mistook my pair of spike shoes for flats. I called tennis shoes, canvas. And the entire team would laugh at me every time I spoke because of my thick African accent. But I survived by trusting God's purpose in my life, outworking everyone else and embracing adversity.
I learned this from my Mom. She is an amazing woman. She never takes no for an answer. For her, everything is possible - if you have the discipline and mental fortitude to keep on irrespective of the challenge. She was the one that kept pushing me. Sometimes when I got in trouble with my Dad because I was doing sports, she would cover for me each time. If anything, she was the reason I fought through my adversity then and why I keep fighting now.
So when I think of "Zero" and all the challenges that come with being a Nigerian athlete, I think of yet another hurdle - no pun intended - that I must scale to reach my goal. My situation is not that different from that of other young Nigerians who are robbed every day of the chance to perform at the highest level because of society's negligence. Yet, in spite of all the adversity, we continue to rise and push the boundaries of success - whether it's in music, entertainment, technology or sports. When I think of "Zero", I think of all the things I did not have growing up in contrast to the things I have now - through hard work and determination.
So keep on fighting, keep representing and keep winning in spite of your challenges. We owe it to ourselves, our families, and those among us who still hunger and thirst for opportunity.