STAVANGER, Norway – There’s something about the underdog in sports that draws fans in, when a team or athlete overcomes seemingly impossible odds to claim victory.
In this case, though, it isn’t so much about wins or losses. It’s about showing up.
For the first time in the history of curling, Nigeria is hitting the pebbled ice at a world curling championship. Yes, the African nation has a curling team.
And yes, you best believe the parallels to Jamaica’s 1988 bobsled team are running rampant in Norway as the team competes.
“We hear that all the time. It’s very exciting,” says Tijani Cole. “We relish that comparison. And it’s our motivation. We’re working hard to be competitive. To get the Olympics in 2022.”
Tijani is one half the Nigerian team competing at the mixed doubles world curling championships in Norway. His wife, Susana Cole, makes up the second half. The two live together in Denver where they started curling for the first time three years ago.
Tijani’s family comes from the south-central Nigerian city of Onitsha. His love of sport and love of country has been an integral part of his life – so when he found out there was an opportunity to compete on the world stage in a sport, he jumped at the opportunity to curl.
“Watching it on the Olympics over the years was motivating for me and my wife. We’re both athletes and competitors,” he said.
Susana spends two-to-three hours a day training with her husband as they try to perfect their curling game.
“It’s a lot of training and hard work,” she says. “You have to prepare mentally and physically. But a lot of fun too.”
Carrying his country’s flag
It has been Tijana’s lifelong dream to carry his country’s flag into a sporting event – something that was sparked during his childhood when he would watch with his parents as Nigeria marched into the Olympics.
Seeing that green and white Nigerian flag waving at the largest athletic event when he was a kid welled up emotion for Tijana.
During the opening ceremony on Saturday in Stavanger, Tijana finally got his chance to wave his country’s flag – and was overrun with emotion all over again.
“I remember watching opening ceremonies of several Olympics as a little kid and saying ‘some day I want that to be me.’ My mom passed before she could see it so I was waving it for her and my father up in heaven so we could say ‘yes, we finally got that childhood dream,'” Tijana said.
“It was a great moment.”
What a moment here for these two curlers, bursting with pride. <a href=”https://twitter.com/CurlingNigeria?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@CurlingNigeria</a> becomes the first African nation ever to walk into the opening ceremony of a world curling championship. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/cbccurl?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#cbccurl</a> <a href=”https://t.co/1lJ9Bpi8Fv”>pic.twitter.com/1lJ9Bpi8Fv</a>
His eyes welled up with tears as he triumphantly walked into the Sormarka Arena, waving the flag with his wife by his side. A moment Tijana or Susana will never forget.
But for as much as both are thrilled to be competing for Nigeria for the first time ever at a curling event, they want more.
“We want to win. We’re working hard,” Susana said. “It’s my husband’s dream to get to the Olympics and I’m happy to share that with him.”
Growing the game
Tijana and Susana want success for their team but they have their eyes on the big picture as well – growing the game in Nigeria.
Just recently a curling clinic was held in Lagos, Nigeria. Hundreds of young students showed up for the event.
“They’re curious to come out and see what the heck this is,” Tijana said. “What we like about the dry-land curling is that you can put it anywhere. We want it to be like that lunchtime basketball game feeling.”
The Nigerian Curling Federation was formed just over a year ago. They just opened an office and are collecting equipment. They’re serious about growing the sport.
They even have an official mascot called “Broomzilla” which features a fire-breathing creature holding a broom with a curling rock nearby.
Official team Nigeria curling logo <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/BROOMZILLA?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#BROOMZILLA</a> <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Team?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Team</a> Nigeria <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/stavanger?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#stavanger</a> Norway <a href=”https://t.co/36mZmjPhmN”>pic.twitter.com/36mZmjPhmN</a>
“The past year we’ve been trying to introduce curling. We do a lot of dry-land curling. Slowly but surely the local middle school and high school kids are picking up the game,” Tijana said.
“It’s very exciting. We’re trying to talk to the kids about hard work, discipline… sports teach kids all the lessons of life.”
Canadians can be found coaching different countries all over the world – and that’s exactly the case for this Nigerian team.
Ellery Robichard is a Canadian curler and coach based in Moncton, N.B. He holds a yearly summer curling clinic and that’s how he first connected with Tijana and Susana.
“They came out our camp last summer in Moncton. We do four weeks of camps. And they came. And then from there they asked me to coach,” Robichaud said.
“They’ve only been curling for three years. They’re learning the process and eager. And they’re fun to work with.”
Robichaud says the learning curve and improvement has been steep for these two.
“If you saw them last summer compared to know there’s a huge difference,” he said. “I like to work with people who want to learn. They are fun to work with. It’s fantastic. They have a lot to learn but they’re moving at a fast rate.”
As for how long he’ll continue to coach the two, he’s still not sure at this point.
“I’m retired and still involved with my daughter’s team. That’s my priority. But as long as this doesn’t conflict with that I’ll keep helping this team.”
For right now though, Robichaud is committed to helping this African nation grow the game of curling.
“If they win a game that’d be great. If they win two that’s surpassing expectations,” he said.