Bolaji Eniola Mariam hits the headlines last month when she defeated Oksana Kozyna of Ukraine 2-1 [18-21, 21-14, 21-18] to win the 2021 Spanish Para-Badminton International Championship held in Cartegena, Spain. She became the first Nigerian nay African to play in the final and win a gold medal in any para-badminton international championship. In this interview with BIOLA AZEEZ, the Kwara State-born Bolaji ex-pressed joy for bringing glory to Nigeria. The youngster also spoke on her journey into the sporting world with disability, and her dreams to become a university graduate in the nearest future.
Tell us your background.
I am the only child of my parents. I was brought up by my grandmother. I attended United Harvest Nursery and Primary School while I attended Islamic Missionary Association of Nigeria (IMAN) also in Ilorin for my secondary education. I’m hoping to further my education, and precisely go to the University of Ilorin for a degree programme God willing.
When did you start sporting career?
Before playing badminton, I was playing table tennis in my locality at Osere here in Ilorin before I was introduced to para-badminton by my late coach, Abdulrafiu Bello. I started para-badminton four years ago. In fact, I was not serious with the game until in 2019 when he took me to a workshop in Abuja and since then, I resumed training and has continued to focus on the game.
My late coach [Abdul-rafiu Bello] discovered me through Brother Bayo, who is a swimming coach. He saw me in the Bank and told me about para-badminton and that I could do it. So, he brought me to my coach. Actually, the table tennis skill also helped me when I took to para-badminton.
When did you sustain this injury, and how did you cope after the incident?
My mum told me I crawled to a lighted candle which led to a fire mishap and this gave me a mark
on the body, but it was not the reason that I can’t walk very well till date. This happened when I was a kid too, a friend pushed me down from a storey building, and I didn’t narrate the incident
to my mum until after six months when I discovered that I couldn’t walk very well again. I was taken to the hospital and it was discovered that a particular bone had been dislocated.
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I stay with my grandmother because I lost my dad and mum to road accident when I was just eight years old. My late coach always told me that I could do it, and that, I could make it through para-badminton. Since then, I embraced the mentality of success in any tournament that I want to attend.
Which tournaments have you attended before representing Nigeria in Spain?
No, I have never played in any major tournament, I used to train with able players as a team or when the Association organised events. in the state Mostly, I do win bronze in such mini-tournaments. I am the only para-badminton female player in Kwara State. So, the competition in Spain was my first international tournament.
What gave you that winning mentality?
My late coach told me two months before the trip that if the Ministry of Sports granted me the slot to travel to Spain I will go for a tournament. He told me to be prayerful. Within me I had a strong conviction that the ministry will grant it while I continued to pray. Again, when I was granted to travel, I never knew I would excel in the tournament. I thought I was going there for classification because I can only play in an international tournament after I have been classified as a para-badminton player.
What was the experience in Spain like?
It was exciting because it was the first time I had the opportunity to meet new people outside my country. I give glory to God for the wonderful experience in Spain and more so, God also crowned my effort with success. In fact, Oksana had earlier in the group stage beat me by two straight sets before I eventually conquered her in the final. After the group game, I was able to study her weakness too by watching her games and this strategy helped me a lot when we met again in the final. Words from my coach inspired me too. I never knew I would play against her [Oksana] in the final. I only thought we would certainly meet another day and I must defeat her.
My confidence grew when I heard that Oksana was the champion in that country and I felt if she could do it, I can also do it and I also wanted to make my coach proud. When my coach died, they wanted to cancel the slot as a result of that incident; but I needed to prove them wrong that I could do it and make them happy too by allowing me to go.
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How prepared are you for the World Para-badminton championship to be held in Japan in October this year?
I am preparing but now I am nursing an injury on my leg which I have been treating in the hospital. Once I complete the treatment, I am coming back to the court to begin training fully for the world championship. I actually sustained the injury in Spain but thank God I’m getting better.
What kind of assistance do you need now?
I want the state government to sponsor my schooling. I also need kits to play para-badminton and sponsorship that would enable me to attend regular competitions. I want my State to encourage me financially so that I won’t get discouraged in the long run, and I can boldly turn down offers from other states.
How will you recall the impact of your late coach, Abdulrafiu Bello Olabanji, who died shortly after the Edo 2020 National Sports Festival on your career?
My late coach did a lot for me, without him, I won’t be where I am today because sometime ago, I was discouraged and I abandoned training for two years. Despite his demise, I will try and encourage other youngsters out there to embrace para-badminton so that his legacy would linger forever. Even after the tournament in Spain, I was regarded as Bello’s legacy. So, I have been trying to persuade others with their disabilities to embrace the sport too.
What do you do aside playing badminton to sustain yourself?
I am into graphics designing, although I am still under training.
What’s your best food?
I don’t eat much but I like spaghetti even while in Spain, I ate spaghetti which they called pasta there. I also like Eba and Okro with goat meat (laughter).
What about your choice of music?
I love Nigeria hip hop.
What’s your message to people with one form of disability or the other?
I want people with disabilities not to look down on themselves because there is ability in disability.
How do you feel in your low moments?
When I am unable to do some things, I feel like I could have been able to do it if not for my disability, but at the end, I will just thank God for my existence. I am a Muslim and I pray often