At the Paralympic Games, physically challenged athletes exhibit their sporting prowess and fight for honours for their countries and personal fame.
The path to the medals at global sports fiestas is paved with years of physical and mental exertions. This is doubly so for the Paralympians who must first overcome their physical disabilities and the social conditions attached to participate in sports.
This is the story of 33-year-old Flora Ugwunwa Ekurede, who became disabled at two years of age due to medical negligence stemming from apparent ignorance of the Polio virus.
Lone woman standing
Just like Chioma Ajunwa 24 years earlier at the Atlanta 96 Olympics where she unexpectedly took the gold medal in the female long jump event, there were not many Nigerian fans at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium to root for Flora.
Nigerian Paralympians have gotten used to not competing in front of their supporters.
But despite the green-white-green flag not waving in the stands, Ekurede won Nigeria’s last gold medal in the women’s F54 Javelin event at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
It was one of the most romantic beating-the-odds sporting stories of the Tokyo Games.
The story of a woman who rose to the global podium years after avoidably losing the use of her lower limbs.
“I wasn’t born like this. While I was two years old, according to my mum, I was feeling feverish and was taken to the hospital,” she tells Premium Times.
“Instead of the doctors and nurses to first calm down my fever, they gave me an injection like that and that paralysed my two legs,” she adds
“According to my mum, I walked into the hospital on my own. She also told me I started walking at seven months. But here we are today, because of the mistake of some medical personnel, I cannot walk with my two legs again.”
Flora suffered from polio probably because she was not vaccinated early against the disease, a cruel but avoidable fate that is shared by thousands of children in rural communities across Nigeria.
While such mishaps have forced many into street begging, it could not stop Flora’s education as she went on to study Accounting at Nnamdi Azikiwe University.
“I studied at Marist Comprehensive Academy, Uturu, Abia State. After then I moved to Enugu where I did Computer Studies before I secured admission into the Nnamdi Azikiwe University to study Accounting. Before this, I had done Accounting Education at the Enugu College of Education.”
Her condition also could not diminish her passion for sports.
During her stint at Enugu College of Education, Flora liked nothing more than nipping down to the Awka bus terminal, shuttling between Benin and Awka as she combined sports with education.
“When I was doing my NCE in Enugu; I was combining sports and school, but it was not easy at all,” she reveals.
“Sometimes, I would be in Benin and my classmates would call me saying that we were having a quiz or test the next day. I would have to rush down to Awka. I usually told my classmates to help copy lecture notes so I could study on my own for the exams.”
‘Disability as a blessing’
While her South African contemporary, Sandra Khumalo, hopes to one day abandon her wheelchair, Flora no longer sees the wheelchair as a ‘prison’.
“One thing about me is that I don’t see disability in a bad light, though some see it as a curse. To me, disability is a blessing. I don’t even pray to get up from this wheelchair,” she says.
Late British Paralympian, Chris Hallam, could be turning in his grave to hear Flora saying she enjoys life in a wheelchair.
”Sometimes, I hear my lovely husband praying that I should be able to walk again. I would just tell him to change the prayer point,” Flora said.
Flora is the only disabled among her family’s 11 children.
But her determination to beat her condition grew stronger after two of her siblings died. Her life-changing moment came during the Abia State Sports Festival, organised by Governor Orji Uzor Kalu. She has never looked back since.
“I didn’t even know that physically challenged people could do sports,” she reveals. “But while I was in school, I think SS2, a group of athletes came to my school (Maris Comprehensive Academy, Uturu) to introduce sports to us; telling us about the State Sports Festival being put together by the then governor, Orji Uzor Kalu, for physically challenged people. Then they introduced me to power-lifting, which I picked interest in to see how it goes,” she says.
It turned out well for Flora as she won a gold medal in power-lifting and silver in Table Tennis at the festival. Encouraged by the feat, Flora relocated to Enugu and won a silver for the state at the National Sports Festival.
Like a golden fish with no hiding place, Edo State noticed and hijacked her.
“It was there that Edo State discovered me and hijacked me from Enugu, who were actually not doing enough in terms of welfare.
“I competed for Edo in Powerlifting in 2006 at the Ogun Sports Festival. Then I won a bronze medal because they changed me from one class to the other. In the next Festival in Kaduna, I now won a gold medal.”
There comes a time in life when one faces a choice to give up everything and quit or face the odds and move on. Flora had her trying moment too after she was dropped from the team to the 2012 Paralympics.
“I changed from powerlifting to para-athletics. in 2011, I won a silver medal for Edo State. It was from there they called me to camp for the Paralympic Games qualifier that was held in Dubai in 2012. Because of the politics in sports, I was surprisingly dropped for a colleague and that got me thinking about whether I should just go back to face my studies. I believe that when is my time to shine, no one can ever stop me,”
However, she was not deterred by the setback.
Instead, Flora pressed on towards the prize, believing her time would come. She returned to powerlifting when a modicum of stability returned to the powerlifting federation.
“After then, I left and faced my studies until there was another trial in 2015 which I won and from there I was able to represent Nigeria at the African Games where I won a gold medal with a world record and then another silver medal,” she recalls.
Fate then smiled at her at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games where she mounted the podium to take the gold medal in Javelin. “Then in 2016, I was in Rio for my first Paralympic Games outing, and there I won a gold medal in Javelin with a world record that is still standing till today (November 2021).”
As records kept tumbling, Flora again fought her way into the record books by setting another record in discus.
“The other world record I set in discus has been broken but all in all, I give all the glory to God because since then, every international competition I go for, I come back with multiple medals,” she said.
Being considered a world champion in her trade did not happen until she won another gold at Tokyo Paralympic Games. She thus proved that her feat in Rio was not a flash in the pan.
“It was only the world championships that I went to in 2019 that I won just a silver medal and that was what qualified me for the Tokyo Paralympic Games where God glorified himself again and I won a gold medal.”
Life can be extremely difficult for female disabled athletes, most especially if friends and family members do not offer a helping hand. But Flora is lucky to be blessed with a loving and patient husband.
“It is very difficult for a woman with a disability to go into sports. It is very stressful if you ask me. But with determination, hard work, and prayers, then you can do it. For those that are married, if they have loving husbands like mine, it makes it easier. For those that are not married, if they have very supportive families, it makes the task easier. He is not a sports person but he loves sport and he has lovingly resigned to help me.”
Flora is a woman of many parts. Aside sports, baking and shoemaking are some of her other passions. Although she still nurses the dream of putting her certificate to use someday, setting a new world record in the Paris Olympics remains her immediate to-do goal.
Absence of corporate support
She has also called out to corporate bodies to support disabled athletes who want to keep touching lives.
“If you look at our able-bodied counterparts, they are always getting one form of support or the other. D’Tigress had three banks donating to them,” she declares.
“Except for 2016 when Union Bank supported us, there was nothing like that for us when we were going to Tokyo but we are still the ones that did the country proud. If we can get just a fraction of the endorsements from corporate bodies that are given to the Super Eagles and others, it will go a long way.”
As with every other disabled athlete, Flora’s vision is to show the world there is ability in disability.
“I wanted to be the best, and that has been achieved,” she says. “In five years, I want to set another record in Paris that would take years to be broken. I want to touch lives with my sporting career,” she says.
Khumalo can keep believing in her dreams of walking again, but don’t tell Flora that
Flora’s plan is to keep reminding the world that her generation of talented Paralympians is no flash in a pan. For her, impossible is nothing.
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