IN her heydays, Mary Onyali-Omagbemi was the most accomplished Nigerian female sprinter of her time. She was discovered at an early age and ran for the country from 1983 till 2003 and won a bronze medal in the 4×400 metres relay at the 1992 Olympics, 200 metres at the 1996 Olympics and at the 1994 Commonwealth Games, among many others. She added Omagbemi to her name when she married another Nigerian sprint champion, Victor Omagbemi. Mary has retired for seven years now and is fully occupied with the running of her Mary Onyali 3D Centre, an establishment for the grooming of young upcoming athletes, a few other businesses and shuttling between Nigeria and the United States to be with her family. ENCOMIUM Weekly ran into her at a recent event in Abuja and she relived some of the strong memories of her active days and her activities since retirement.
I ran my last race at the Athens Olympics in 2004. And since, then, I have continued to be busy. In fact, I didn’t even rest for one day because in 2005, I swung right back into the business aspect of sports. In 2006, I launched the Yali Yali wear line. I was also involved in a lot of non-profit organizations, including my own Mary Onyali 3D Centre, which is geared towards the care and grooming of young upcoming athletes. We are trying to get the next Mary Onyali in all the sports.
How many years did you run for Nigeria?
I started running for Nigeria in 1983. From there, I went to the United States for my college degree in Telecommunications and Theatre and continued on a professional level till 2004.
What were some of your most memorable moments in those years?
My most memorable moment has to be Atlanta ’96 where I won my individual bronze medal in the 200 metres. My most cherished is the 2003 All African Games in Abuja, because I started my career in Nigeria and I wanted to end here in Nigeria on a good note and I did.
What were some of the low moments?
My lowest moment was the 1992 Olympics where I didn’t make the 200 metres finals. For the first time in history, I never made any final in international events and it was all due to the fact that I had a foot surgery and had only five months to train. I still made the team, but wasn’t able to perform at the level I was accustomed to.
How do you feel to have served Nigeria in that capacity for that length of time?
I was on cloud nine. I did everything I did for Nigeria with my heart, my soul, my blood, my sweat. I gave it all and I’m sure a majority of Nigerians would testify to that. There’s nowhere in this country or outside that no one ever heard my name and didn’t say thank you for a job well done over the years. That’s a testimony to the fact that what I did, I did with my heart. I have no regret being a Nigerian and serving Nigeria to the best of my ability and I’ll do it over a hundred times again if given the opportunity.
During that period, other athletes were jumping and switching to more lucrative countries, did that ever cross your mind?
No. The thought must have crossed my mind when I was frustrated for one reason or the other, when the government failed us and many other situations and occasions. But I couldn’t get up to do it. I didn’t have the guts to leave because I love this country so much and I couldn’t stand the fact that coming back to the country on a visit for any reason, I would come through the airport, knowing very well that I don’t belong here. I couldn’t bear the thought of that. So, all the offers that were made to me by other countries, I flatly turned them down.
Where did some of the offers come from?
Sweden, France and so many others. In fact, the only country that didn’t give me an offer was England because they already had a lot of athletes. They lured me with everything, plus lucrative month salary which we have been clamouring for here. I know my colleagues in other countries, who don’t even make the finals in international competitions like I did who get monthly stipends and whatever they ask from their government. The fact that I didn’t get any didn’t deter me from doing what I wanted to do. I did it for me first, because on the screen at the competition, it is always my name first, then my country before any other thing. So, I worked for my own satisfaction and for the glory of my country.
How has the country appreciated you since your retirement?
Just the same way I didn’t complain while competing, is the same way I have kept quiet since retirement. I am sure that someone out there is watching, listening and taking note of what I have done and has continued doing, even after retirement and I’m sure that one day, they would recognize me.
What’s your rating of our athletics scene since your retirement?
I feel sad. There’s no way I will watch sports, especially athletics dying in my country and I will be glorifying it. That’s the reason I came back and I have been trying to help bring the sport back to its glorious days. Rome was not built in a day and building our sports back to the way it was is not going to be easy and it’s the ex-internationals like myself that would come back to help bring it back to where it was. But the surest route to getting our athletics back to where it was is by simply taking care of our athletes. The crop of athletes we have now might not be of the same caliber with us, but if we take care of them, we can push and bring the best out of them. We need to take care of them because welfare is paramount in any sport. If you take care of an athlete’s welfare, mentally and physically, he will climb Mount Everest for you.
During my days, we saw sports as a hobby and we participated in our events with love of the sport first. Money was secondary, then the name, the glory and all other things came later. But these days, the athletes have it backwards. They start looking for the glory and the money before making the name and put the love of the sports in the cooler. They need to reverse that trend and unless they do that, they will not last in the sport because if you sit there as an upcoming athlete waiting for the government to take you by the hand before you perform, you’ll be wasting your time.
What were the habits that took you to the level you reached and how did you maintain that level during your days?
I have the three Ds: Discipline, Determination and Dedication. These three Ds were what I lived by. I lived, ate, slept and dreamt them. They took me through my years of active service and even now that I’m retired, I still apply it in my business. They are not just for athletes, they also go for ordinary people. If you don’t live by them, you won’t go far in whatever you want to achieve.
Tell us a bit about your family.
I have two children. My daughter is 13 years old and my son is three years old. My daughter is already participating in the junior Olympics. She has no choice because it runs in the family. My husband is a sprinter and I am an Olympian. My kids don’t have any choice but to participate in one sports or the other. It doesn’t have to be running.
How do you manage living alone here while your husband is in the US?
I’m not alone here, I am with my son and my husband is with our daughter. Moreover, I visit them in the US every other time. I’m only here in Nigeria when I have a special project to execute because with this period of mobile technology and communication, you can work from anywhere in the world.
You grew up in Lagos, why did you choose to stay in Abuja when you are in the country?
When I came back to Nigeria, I stayed in Lagos for a year but for some reason, I couldn’t handle the hustle and bustle of Lagos. So, I had to move to Abuja because it’s a bit quieter for me and I love peace and quietness a lot.
What other plans do you have for the young girls, who see you as a role model?
All my plans are inbuilt in the Mary Onyali 3D Centre. I want to build a centre for them, male and female. Of course, I am an advocate for women, but my main goal is making sure the athletes are well taken care of. That’s why I started the Yali Yali sports line in the first place, because I see them at the National Stadium and what they wear while training and it hurts my heart. So, since they cannot afford the big names in sports wears, I decided to come up with a sportswear line they can afford.
This story was first published in Encomium Weekly on Tuesday, November 2, 2010