ROME—Seun Adigun, the driver for the Nigerian bobsleigh Olympic team competing in Pyeongchang this weekend, doesn’t like snow. She finds it cold and messy and, most of all, slippery.
“We’re from a continent that would never imagine sliding down the ice at 80 or 90 miles an hour,” she said in a recent interview. “The idea of getting people to [accept] that, in itself, I think is empowering.”
Adigun, along with her brake women Akuoma Omeoga and Ngozi Onwumere, are the first-ever Nigerian team competing in a winter Olympics (not to mention the first-ever bobsled team to ever represent an African nation). In their native Nigeria, a country often in the headlines for corruption and terrorism, most people have never even heard of the sport.
At a send-off celebration in Lagos before heading to South Korea, the team had to give a demonstration of just what the sport was about, including a primer on how cold snow really is.
“Just because you don’t know what it means to see snow or to understand temperatures that are equivalent to ice, that doesn’t mean you have to shy away from it,” Adigun said at the celebration, according to press reports. “That’s what Africa is representing, that we can take those risks and still be able to compete with the best in the world.”
All three bobsled team members grew up in America after their parents emigrated from Nigeria in the 1980s as part of the African diaspora that came over when the United States more readily welcomed people from developing nations. They joke about being from a “shithole” country, as defined by President Donald Trump, saying they hope they can redefine the view of African immigrants.
“We are American, but we’re actually Nigerian first,” Omeoga said in a recent interview with a local newspaper from Macon, Georgia, her university town. “That’s the one culture that we know, that we were raised to respect and understand. To show people that it’s okay to be both and it’s okay to represent where you’re from is a powerful message that, hopefully, we’ve been able to translate.”
But though they identify with their African heritage, they have had little financial support from Nigeria for their efforts.
They had to rely on a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to raise $75,000 for simple equipment, sled blades, and ice time. Their sponsors include Under Armor and Dr. Dre Beats, but they still sell T-shirts on their team website to help pay for their travel and other expenses.
Adigun even built the team’s first sled, which she called the Maeflower after her late sister-in-law, in her student garage in Houston, Texas, where she is working on double masters degrees. She qualified to train with the U.S. bobsled team, but in 2016, after learning Nigeria has never had a winter Olympics sports team, started her own team to compete for the African nation.
Adigun, a track and field Olympian, competed under the Nigerian flag in the 2012 summer Olympics in London and is a three-time Nigerian national track and field champion and a two-time African continental track and field champion. Her teammates are also track and field stars who have competed in African and American competitions.
The Nigerian bobsled athletes represent one of eight African countries in this year’s games along with athletes from Eritrea, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Morocco, South Africa, and Togo—the largest representation of Africans at such an event.
And while their chances at a medal are slim at best, they have already won the hearts of everyone they have met, easily becoming the media darlings of these winter games, just slightly edging out the the first-ever women’s bobsleigh team from Jamaica, whose male counterparts captured hearts when they debuted in the 1988 winter games in Calgary and inspired the film Cool Runnings.
The two teams from snowless countries will face off in training heats this week ahead of weekend competition. (The German coach of the Jamaican women’s bobsleigh team quit unexpectedly this week just days before the team’s first competition, threatening to take the team sled back to Germany, according to a Reuters report.)
Though the Nigerian team had to raise their own money to participate and pay the entrance fees for the games, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has embraced them as a Nigerian success.
Before the games, he appointed an envoy to accompany the team in South Korea and promised to host them at his private villa in Nigeria when they return “whether they win or not.”