Mary Onyali-Omagbemi: The Making Of An Athletic Queen (1)

Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, born on the 3rd of February 1969 in Adamawa State is a valuable Nigerian sprinter. She has bagged many honours in her chosen career as a sports woman, regarded as a foremost and most disciplined athlete, her laurels include the Olympic medal, Gold medal from the all African Games in Kenya, Cairo, World Junior Athletics Championship, Greece Gold medals.
She performed exceptionally well in the All-Africa Games, winning a total of 7 individual medals in the short sprints. She won 100 m in 1991, 1995 and 2003 and took a bronze medal in 1987. Gold medals in 200 m were taken in 1987, 1995 and 2003. Furthermore, the Nigerian 4 x 100 m relay team won all races between 1987 and 2003, at the African Games.
Born Mary Onyali, by the time of the 2000 Olympics, she was known as Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, having married fellow Nigerian sprinter, Victor Omagbemi, an Itsekiri from Delta State. Her consecutive Olympic appearances from 1988 to 2004 made her the first Nigerian to compete at five Olympics. This feat was equalled by table tennis players, Bose Kaffo and Segun Toriola four years later in Beijing, PR China.
She once served as the Special Adviser (Technical) to a one-time Director-General of the National Sports Commission in Nigeria. She made a name for herself in the track and field world, establishing several prestigious marks on the way. Popularly called the Queen of Nigerian sprints, Mary continues to hold the Nigerian 200m record, and is still ranked in the top 10 of the collegiate all time list in both the 100 and 200m.
The sport of track and field was never a priority during her early years growing up. Her father passed away when she was a very young child and her mother was left to raise her and her younger siblings, a sister and two brothers. As the oldest of four children, much of the responsibility of child raising fell strongly upon her. She says her mother constantly emphasized the importance of their education and to her, everything else was just extracurricular.
The social norm for a female then, was everything but being an athlete. A woman was to go to school and eventually work and focus on marriage and having a family. She was all but interested in this philosophy – she did not want to succumb to the pressures of marrying and having children. Her traits of self will and stubbornness found her going against the social norm. Getting involved in the sport of track and field was a mere coincidence for her. In elementary school, sports were part of the curriculum and she participated in everything there was. She always seemed to be extremely competitive at everything and always proved to be the best.
She continued with track and field once she reached high school. She competed in the long jump, high jump and track events and also continued to win. At this level, she realized that this was something that she not only enjoyed but was good at. She began to love the competition and the pleasures of winning. She now was drinking, eating and sleeping track. This started to affect her studies and her mom threatened to discontinue her participation in the sport. She promised herself that she would not let this happen to her – she loved running, and would do anything as long as she was able to compete. Therefore getting her grades back up to par became a priority. Inspired by her high school coach who quickly recognized her phenomenal talent, she went on to become the team captain of all sporting activities of her school and started to look at athletics from a whole different perspective.
There started to be talks of going to university in the US and perhaps getting a scholarship. Until this point, she had not given university much thought. Of course there were universities in Nigeria where she could go and pursue her academic endeavours; but it wasn’t as simple as it seemed. No athletic grants were offered and her mother could not afford her university education. The inadequacy of training and competition facilities would not allow her the success that she had hoped for in the sport.
She began representing her school by competing in what was called inter-house sports, which consisted of four groups that would compete against each other once a year and the best of the four groups would go on to compete against other schools. Of course, Mary’s group was always picked to represent their school and again she always came out tops. After Secondary school, she continued to run, with hopes that one day, she would get news of a college scholarship. She competed and won the junior category championships and went on to compete in the senior category as a junior and also won, but this was where her first disappointment came.
By winning the senior category in the 100 and 200m, she was chosen to represent Nigeria in Ghana in 1983 as her first international competition, but that opportunity was stripped from her with the excuse that she was young and did not have enough experience. She felt she was not taken seriously. This set the stage for her to prove everyone wrong. After that year, she began to receive even more recognition and the opportunity to show her talent. In 1984, she again won the senior division and was this time chosen to go to Kwara. Unfortunately the same devastation struck again – she was again denied her right to compete in the 100 and 200m races but was allowed to run the 4×100 relay. These criticisms and lack of faith by her fellow countrymen only made her stronger and more determined to win when given the opportunity.
In 1985, she once again proved that she was in control of the 100 and 200m when, as a junior, she defeated the senior women. Now she was given the opportunity that she so rightly deserved to compete in the African games in Cairo, Egypt only, her second major competition. Prior to this meet, Mary had trained and competed barefoot on dirty surfaces, and never had the experience of using starting blocks. Overwhelmed by the atmosphere that surrounded her, she false started twice and was disqualified in the 100m. This was completely devastating to her but redemption came in the 200m where she placed second to a senior competitor. In 1986, she went on to compete in the World Junior Championships in Athens, Greece and left with a silver medal in the 200m. From then on, she was recognized as the little Nigerian girl who did not quit and was very likely to stay.