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Little Girl Dreams

I have always thought the sacrifices athletes make to win - and consistently stay at that level - are so understated.

It is easy to be swept up by the prestige of victory - the sight of athletes on a podium, some crying for joy, some smiling, some waving; National anthems playing in the background; the biting of medals and the photo ops.

I wish people understood the amount of pain and struggle behind those podium smiles. I wish people saw the amount of mental prep required, the diet and supplements, the training and recovery, the travel, and the funding (or lack thereof).

I wish people understood this, not just to have a better appreciation for the athlete but to value the efforts of those behind the scenes who sacrifice every day to help these athletes improve.

As a junior athlete, I didn't understand it either. For me, sports was a way of escape. But as I took it more seriously, watching athletes like Blessing Okagbare and seeing how much work she puts into her craft, I began to understand that there are levels to this.

I've competed in Long Jump events at an international level for about 8-years now, and it has been a remarkable journey. Looking inward, I see how much my team, coach, and family have had to forgo to ensure I reach my full potential. And I'm not even sure winning a gold medal at the Olympics is enough compensation for their troubles.

I say this because this whole experience hit home for me during the Chula Vista Field Festival. What fans will remember about this event is my record-breaking jump. And that's OK.

However, what I will remember is how it almost didn't happen. I remember how hard it was for me and my coach, Kayode Yaya, to get to the venue. I remember the dingy little roadside motel in the middle of nowhere we had to lodge because we couldn't afford anything better. I remember all the moments when I wanted to give up, but Coach Kayode kept pushing me. The support from friends like LSU's Mercy Abire-Matanmi and other people ensured that our stay in the US was comfortable. Without them, we wouldn't have been at Chula Vista. And that is what I remember the most.

Now don't get me wrong. Breaking Ms Ajunwa's record has always been my dream. I was only six months old when she set the record at the Olympic Games in Atlanta. I grew up reading all about her and what she had done - becoming the first Nigerian athlete and woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics. To me, she is a real-life superhero. A queen who kicked open the door so a young princess like myself could walk in.

A few days after I broke her record and she congratulated me in a personal message. She was every bit as gracious, warm and articulate as I had imagined.

Amid the frenzy of jumping 7.17 meters in Chula Vista and breaking Ms Ajunwa's record, I couldn't help but reflect on the amount of work that went into being present or available at the event - and I don't mean the work that went into being able to compete. Any African athlete understands the difference between these two things.

Talent is one thing and having the means and wherewithal to compete is another. When I consider there are hundreds more like me in Nigeria who might even be more talented but don't have this kind of support, it humbles me because I understand I wasn't supposed to be here.

My journey began when I met Coach Kayode over a decade ago. I was a tiny teenager who had ambitions of becoming a model. He was coaching a few kids in the area, so I joined. Before then, I had never met anyone so inspiring, positive and self-assured. He challenged me to take sports seriously and gave me a vision. Two years later, I tracked him to the University of Benin, where he was coaching. The rest is history.

Since then, he has been like a father to me. He and his wife welcomed me into their home with open arms. They have housed me and fed me. They have been there in my lowest and great moments. At the very beginning, Coach Kayode saw what I didn't see in myself. While I was looking for an escape, he saw a champion. As a junior athlete, I did every sport - 100m, 400m, Long Jump, and Triple Jump. Coach Kayode brought focus and structure. He is the architect of what I am today.

As an athlete in Nigeria, it's difficult to find standard training facilities, tutors and teams that understand what it means to groom world-class talent. It is even more challenging for female athletes when you add traditional beliefs and culture about what a woman can or cannot do. I know this too well.

I carry the legacy of strong and amazing women athletes that came before me and the ambitions of a generation of young people whose time is now.

I got my athleticism from my mother. As a teenager, she was a phenom. She ran track, she jumped. But she didn't have support. She didn't have people like Coach Kayode who could walk up to her father - my grandfather - and help him understand the importance of sports in his daughter's development. My mother had to give it all up in her prime to get married. We have never really talked about it, but I think that experience compelled her to ensure we all did sports. My younger sister Karo runs the 100m, 200m and 400m, and my younger brother Godson runs the 100m. It has been a blessing to see them both flourish into amazing athletes.

If there is anything that I've learned this year, it's that my dreams are not just mine. They are a shared reality with all those who have come along to help me get to where I am today. That is why I understand that I don't just represent myself out there every time I step out to compete. I represent God, my coach, my family, and most importantly, the hopes and dreams of young girls across Africa and the world. I carry the legacy of strong and amazing women athletes that came before me and the ambitions of a generation of young people whose time is now.

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