June 26th was her birthday. She spent the day not with family and friends but in camp training for the Tokyo 2021 Paralympic Games. Her co-athletes joined her in thanksgiving and just a few Nigerians who recognised and appreciate her worth sent messages of goodwill.
As a first timer in the Paralympics, Flora Ugunnwa Ekurede landed at the Rio 2016 Games as an underdog in the women F54 javelin event. She ended up etching her name in gold with a world record of 20.25 metres, seen as an impossible throw for her category of persons with limb deficiency, impaired muscle power and body movement.
She knows she owes herself a duty not only to make Nigeria proud again but to defend her place in world sports. It is especially so as, since her return from Rio, competitions have been scanty.
Throughout 2020, training was difficult because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her last meaningful outings were at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai and the World Para Athletics Grand Prix in Tunisia.
She got a silver at the Dubai event which though qualified her for the forthcoming Tokyo Games, she recognized that she couldn’t meet the mark she set in Rio and lost her prime position in the globe. She fought back at the Tunisia Grand Prix to restore her gold position and added a silver in discus throw. It was a reverse of her events performance at the Brazzaville 2015 Africa Games where she won gold in discus and silver in javelin for Nigeria. She did all that even when she was heavy and on wheelchair.
Flora had hoped that with the considerable relaxation of Coronavirus and the return of global sporting activities, the early part of 2021 would present her bigger opportunities to square up with opponents in international competitions in preparation for the Paralympics. She had her eye on the World Para Athletics Grand Prix series which would have seen her compete from Dubai to Tunisia and to France but there was no funding for her and the team.Matters are made worse by the lack of endorsements, sponsorships and support for para sports and the Nigeria Paralympic team by the corporate community. Though they know and celebrate the fact that the Paralympians always bring glory to Nigeria at every Olympiad, yet they offer them no support for preparations.
Worse is that they have had their morale bruised a number of times after they performed well and brought glory to Nigeria. They won eight gold, two silver, two bronze medals and set several games and world records in just the three sports entered for in Rio 2016. It was the best performance of Team Nigeria at the Paralympics since they joined in 1992, but they returned to not even the usual Presidential handshake accorded Nigerian athletes who perform well at international events.
On the other hand, if not for the only bronze from the football event, the able bodied Olympic team would have returned with nothing.
Flora and her Paralympic colleagues have kept wondering at the discrimination from both governmental and corporate institutions but, despite the low motivation, they are clinging to God and working hard with self determination and personal sacrifices to achieve even more in Tokyo by surpassing their feat in Rio.
Like the champions they are, they remain undaunted, eyes fixed on continued greater glory.
Flora and her Paralympic colleagues seek for general public assistance for their forthcoming 2021 Paralympic Games in Tokyo Japan.