In this interview with JOHNNY EDWARD17-year-old para-badminton star Eniola Bolaji recounts her experiences as a special sports athlete and her ambitions as an athlete.
What has been the challenge like playing Badminton?
It hasn’t been easy since I started playing badminton as a special sports athlete. It was my late coach Bello Oyebanji, who encouraged me to continue when lack of funds almost ended my career. I had no money to buy kits but he bought me all I needed back then before he died, and ensured I trained very well. People look down on me a lot because of my disability and wonder why I’m into sports but God used Oyebanji to offer me the courage to get to the level I am now. I will never forget him and how he helped me develop as an athlete. On the challenges I face, I have developed a thick skin. I just look away and continue my training. I don’t often get the same chance (with able-bodied athletes), so, I have to work extra hard to be better than them, because that was the only way my coach felt I could gain confidence. Getting to train every day was tough due to the distance to the stadium from my house. Most times I do walk to training halfway before getting a cab to the stadium. I’m the only special athlete where I train, and I hear a lot of very demoralising comments during training sessions. They tell me I can do something better with my life other than coming for training jumping around playing badminton. They never believed I would flourish and I’m happy that when I won the 2021 Spanish Para-Badminton International competition in Cartagena, Spain my story changed for good.
How did you get into sports?
Sports was introduced to me by a swimming coach in Ilorin. He saw me by the poolside when I was just about to celebrate my 13th birthday. He approached me and told me I could be a good swimmer if I put my heart into it. But I was curious, I didn’t know which sport a physically-challenged teenager like me could do comfortably without going through stress. I told him my feet were not balanced, so how could I cope? He did his best to talk me out of the fears and doubts that I had. After that day, he requested another meeting and we did meet. He took me to the Ilorin stadium, where he introduced me to my late coach and that was how my badminton journey started in 2017.
How accommodating has the Nigerian society been to you?
So far, the society has been good and accommodating because I have a place where I train regularly and my coaches have been helpful just as my former coach, who passed on, was to me.
In terms of sponsorship, has it been easy getting one?
It’s very difficult and that is what I hope to get someday. I ought to have featured at the Para-Badminton International II tournament in Spain earlier this year, but I couldn’t because of funds and lack of sponsorship. It has been really tough. That’s my biggest challenge. It was my late coach, who pushed for my sponsorship to attend the tournament in Spain last year with the help of the badminton federation president, Francis Orbih, and thank God I won gold in my category. I was picked as a junior player for the Nigerian para-badminton team but due to lack of sponsorship, I did not feature in any tournament. Again, Oyebanji helped me and pushed for sponsorship to attend the 2019 BCA Para-Badminton Athletes Workshop in Abuja. It was from there I qualified for the BWF Female Participation Grant program. That enabled me to attend my first-ever international tournament as a player.
What do you need to excel in badminton?
I need to get sponsors to help fund my appearances at tournaments during the year, to improve on my rankings by gathering more points. My dream is to represent Nigeria at the 2024 Paralympics in Paris. I also hope to encourage people living with disabilities to be courageous and go on with their lives normally. We are human beings as well.
Was winning the para-badminton in Spain the highest point of your young career?
Yes, it was, but I hope to win more laurels when I get the chance to compete abroad again.
Who has been the greatest influence in your career?
Oyebanji has been the greatest influence in my career and I will never forget him in my lifetime. God used him to make everything work. He was like a father to me, a disciplined man, who supported me. He inspired me to take up para-badminton instead of swimming or tennis and now I’m happy with the results.
All rights reserved. This material, and other digital content on this website, may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or in part without prior express written permission from PUNCH.
Contact: [email protected]