Thursday, February 16, 2012


Johny (Jonathan) Akinyemi, who is training to be an accountant and has a degree in Theology, made history recently when he qualified to represent the country at the London 2012 Olympic Games, also the first Nigerian to qualify to represent the country at any Olympics canoe slalom competition.

In this exclusive interview – the first of its kind with any Nigerian media outfit, with Arukaino Umukoro, Akinyemi who has a Nigerian father and British mother talks about his life, sport, historic feat in South Africa, goals for London 2012 and the future of canoe slalom as a sport in Nigeria. Excepts:

How was it like growing up in the UK and discovering your passion for canoeing?

I grew up in Warrington, which is like a small town near Manchester. There’s not a very big Nigerian community in Warrington. I started canoeing when I was 12 years old in a local canoeing club in Warrington. This was after I watched the guy called Paul Ratcliffe win silver in the canoe slalom at the 2000 Olympics. And I was very interested. At the time, I really wanted to have a motorbike and wanted to go do some racing and jumps at the track. But my mum and dad said it would be too dangerous, that I should get a canoe. At the time, I was disappointed because I thought it was not as good as the motorbike. But I though I’d give canoeing a go. That’s how I got into it and realized I was quite good at it. That was when I started to compete and win races.

How does it feel to finally qualifying for London 2012 as Nigeria’s first canoeist in any Olympic competition or African K1 champion?

It’s just absolutely incredible and I’ve not stopped smiling since I won the race. I can wake up in the night and after about ten seconds, I remember that I’ve qualified for the Olympics and I just laugh out loud. I’m just so happy. And I think honestly the glory should go all to God though, because I honestly agree that it was a miracle that happened out there. I felt God with me on the road and saw many people praying for me. So, honestly, all glory goes to God.

Obviously, you’re a very spiritual person?


You became British Champion in 2006, but gave up your place at the top of the British canoe standings to compete for Nigeria, your father’s home country. What prompted your decision to switch?

At that time, I was really discovering my Nigerian roots, learning more about Nigeria and basically Africa in general. It was just something I thought I needed to do, just a switch to compete for Nigeria. And at that time, I felt quite isolated on the British team, like I felt different and didn’t fit in with the British team as well. This combined with me discovering more of my dad’s side of the family… I just decided to do the switch. I got in touch with the rowing/canoe federation and have been canoeing with Nigeria since then.

Before your first visit to Nigeria in 2007, what were your impressions about the country?

Basically, the main impressions I had of Nigeria before I went to visit was from my grand dad because he lived in Lagos his whole life and then moved on when he was an older man. So he was really fond of the country and told me lots of great stories about Nigeria and how he always missed the weather, the people, the jokes, the bars, joints and stuff. So I needed to go see for myself. I’m very proud of my Nigerian heritage. So I knew I had to go back. It was almost like going back to the homeland and seeing with my own eyes.
My first visit to Nigeria was like an emotional visit. It was great to see all these places you’ve been told stories about. My first impression was that the best things about Nigeria are Nigerians. Nigerians are just fantastic and so friendly, want to have a good time and a good party. When people talk about how great Nigerians are, it makes me really very proud to be a Nigerian.

Has anything changed about your perception of Nigeria?

Now I have been to Nigeria, you see a broader thing. It was like an emotional visit. It was great to see all these places you’ve been told stories about. My first impression about Nigeria is that the best thing about Nigeria are Nigerians. The Nigerian people are just fantastic and so friendly, want to have a good time and a good party. When people talk about how great Nigerians are, it makes me really very proud to be a Nigerian.

Where did you visit?

When I came, I stayed in Lagos, I saw the Surulere national stadium. I saw the sights but the guy I was staying with, Ibrahim, he took me to all the places, took me to Afrika Shrine to see Femi Kuti (perform) (laughs), listen to the music. So it was the best times. I walked up on stage and shook Femi’s hands.

So, what do you think of Fela and his music?

Oh, I love afrobeat. I have Fela Kuti and Femi Kuti cds in my car and was always listening to it. And when I was in South Africa on the day of the race, I had Femi Kuti’s cd in the car when I was driving to the river. It put me in the mood. And I was so impressed when I went to the Afrika Shrine. It was better than any night club or any concert.

Would you say that your visit in 2007 put a seal to your conviction that you were making the right choice?

Yes, definitely. They were two things. I went to the All Africa games in Algeria to meet the canoeing federation and realized that they were great people and really passionate about the sport, passionate that they could develop canoeing. After that, I went to Nigeria to meet with them again and that was what sealed the deal that I was making the right choice switching to Nigeria.

Did you ever think you were different or had any issues about your colour, where your roots were or you were more committed to Britain before your visit to Nigeria?

No. Definitely in Britain, I think race is quite like a big thing. I never felt really British because I’m mixed race. For a Nigerian, I’m quite pale, for a white person, I’m very dark. With my colour, I had to find my identity. And I found that being mixed race, I associate more with my Nigerian side, they welcoming me much more.

Canoeing is virtually unknown to most people in Nigeria. Do you think there is a future for such unique sports in Nigeria?

I think there is a future for canoeing in Nigeria because I know this when I was in Lagos over the Lagoons and the waters, there were this villages using canoe as their main form of transport. So all we need to do is get those youngsters, get all those people into them into the right canoe and environment and it would be perfect. There’s definitely a future. And I just want to be a role model for young Nigerians to look up to so that they can follow in my steps and maybe in the Olympics after, young Nigerians will be competing and maybe beating me. That would make me happy because I would know that canoeing is succeeding in Nigeria.

The Nigerian Olympic Committee has ecstatic about your feat. How much role would you say they played in ensuring that you represented the country?

They Olympic committee has been amazing and has helped with so much. Since the election of new committee members a few years ago, they have been doing a fantastic job supporting me, giving me all the support I have needed, they’ve always just been a phone call away so that I can ask them for help. They’ve come to see me training at the Olympic course. The support they have given me is fantastic and I don’t think I would have been able to qualify without their help. They’ve really done a great job.

If you were in position to advise on how to develop canoeing and make future champions like you for the country, what would your advice be?

The technical director of canoeing in Nigeria came to town and we discussed this already. We need to do a couple of things. But the most important thing is we need to find the rivers. We need to find wide water rivers where we could set up canoe clubs and basically make it more popular. Anybody can come in and just have a go in the canoe. I think that is an important thing. The federation is already doing a fantastic job, we ‘ve had technical seminars where kids have got involved. We’ve taught some coaches the basics how to train people. Then I think what needs to be done at the regional level is like having regional training centres and coaches in each region to identify which youngsters have the potentials to make it.

Asides catching them young and getting the right rivers, what does one need to be a good canoeist?

You need to have good upper body strength, mental toughness, and you have to be determined because you can take a while to peak in this sport. So you have to continue with it and stick with it, resilience and determination.

What’s your London 2012 Olympic dream?

It’s to win a medal at the Olympics. To get to the Olympics, I had to beat the Beijing 2008 bronze medallist (Benjamin Boukpeti of Togo) in the African championships. All the other canoeist countries around the world, including European countries, they just assumed he was going to get the place. So I really worked hard and went there to prove them wrong and I did that. So if I l keep the mental toughness at the Olympics and have the same attitude, then I think anything is possible.

© Arukaino Umukoro

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