Mary Onyali, MFR, is an international athlete, a sport entrepreneur, and a philanthropist. In this interview by BABATUNDE ADELEKE and KINGSLEY ALUMONA, she speaks on life after retirement, her foundation and her passion to develop sport in Nigeria.
WHAT was growing up like?
GROWING up as a child in Eastern Nigeria was fun. I was a very active child. Sport found me at the age of eight.Full of energy, apart from my academics, my primary and secondary school days were consumed with sport. I continued like that until I was offered a four-year scholarship to the United States. The rest is history.
At what age did you decide to become an athlete?
I discovered that athletics was the thing for me during the last two years of my secondary school education. I started with long jump, then high jump. I later moved on to sprint. I would say I was thirteen when I discovered that I could do what I did at the highest professional level.
What was your international athletic experience like?
I represented my school and Nigeria in international competitions I was invited to. In some of them, I won medals. My professional athletic career started in 1990 after I graduated from the University of Western Houston in Houston, Texas, United States of America where I had a degree in Communication and Theatre. I made appearances at the Commonwealth Games, the Olympics and the All African Games, and won a lot of medals of different colours. It was very memorable. I toured the world. I met people from different parts of the world, interacted with them and made friends that money cannot buy. It was a great experience I would not trade for anything.If I was asked to do this again, I would gladly do it. In a nutshell, it was a rewarding experience.
What would you consider to be the most defining moment of your career?
I have a few. But, the one that sticks most was in Atlanta 96 where I was able to achieve a bronze medal in an individual 200 metre race. The 200 metres was, and is still, my favourite event.Of course I had a bronze medal in Barcelona 92 with a 4-by-100 team, but I still longed for an individual medal. I almost lost the Bronze medal to an American, Inger Miller. She was right on my tail.But, I guess God knew how much I wanted it, and He pushed me forward. I got the bronze medal at the end.
What was your worse experience as an athlete?
My worse experience happened early in my career at the Egypt All-African Games. It was my second outing.It was before I left Nigeria for the United States. I was billed for 100 and 200-meters race. Before then, I had not practised or used the starting block before. I was using it in Egypt for the first time. I did not know the blocks had sensors that could detect sensitive reactions, So, I triggered the block before the shot. I was disqualified for misusing it. For me, it was a horrible experience as a young athlete who was coming to an international competition for the first time. I was depressed.I cried. That should not have happened if I was properly trained. However, Nigeria won the 100 meters with, my sister, Ruthina Uba. In the 200 metres, I was already tired and depressed, I ran the 200 metres race but not to the best of my ability. I came second in it. The experience left a sour taste in my mouth. I would call it my worse experience as an athlete. That was why after my retirement, I am back in the country to make sure no athlete goes through what I went through. I want them to have proper training and guidance in the sports they decide to partake in.
International athletics is serious business.How were you able to combine it with your academics and your marriage?
It was a challenging time, but I was able to scale through because I was not alone. Then, we were thirty one Nigerians that got the scholarship in my school. Part of the contract stipulated that you must have a minimum of 2.5 GPA or you would be kicked out. A lot of us were from financially poor background.So, it would be silly to lose such an opportunity. We had to do our best. In my marriage, I also dealt with challenges. I reached out to other athletes who had successfully combined their career with family. They gave me a few tips, and I followed through until I decided to hang up my spikes.
How has it been since retirement?
I decided to retire after the 2004 Athens Olympics.That was after I have actively participated in five different Olympics. I felt it was best to leave when the applause was still loud. I did not regret any minute of my career because it was rewarding. My mother would not have been able to afford the cost to educate me in the United States, So, I would advise parents to encourage their children, particularly the girl child, to take part in sport. It would eventually help their family in the long run.
You founded MOSPORTS Foundation and Yali-Yali sport wear line after retirement. What motivated you to do this?
Yali-Yali Sport is derived from my father’s name. It produces wears for young athletes. I love fashion. During my career, I was sponsored by many top sport brand wear in the world. I know how they feel and how athletes are supposed to feel in them. I thought: What could I do after retirement to give back to young ones who are trying to be better than me? So, I decided to come up with Yali-Yali. The wear are nice and affordable. My proceed goes into my give-back project. MOSPORTS is my foundation. I use it to give qualified athletes scholarships. Since its inception ten years ago, the foundation has sent about sixteen athletes to the United States on sport-academic scholarships. Due to my contract and relationships in the United States, I still get calls from coaches and acquaintances who I competed with or who were coaches during my career days seeking for Nigerian athletes. They know we have a pool of talent in the country.
What is National Sport Development Fund Incorporated (NSDFI), and what role is it expected to play in National sport development?
NSDFI was conceptualised by eleven international sport retirees.It was painful to see a drain in the sport system.Knowing what it takes to fix it, we could not stay back and watch. That was what gave birth to NSDFI.We came together and created two platforms: One is Talent Development Fund and the other is Elite Athlete Development Fund. The Talent Development Fund is for pupils in primary and secondary schools The Elite Development Fund is for athletes that are Olympic-bound, that we know can help us get some medals at the Olympics. Atlanta 96 still remains our best Olympic till date. We want to make subsequent Olympics better. Right now, we are on a nationwide campaign to get the Elite Athlete Development Fund.We have picked 90 athletes from five different sports, and we are appealing to 1.5 million Nigerians to donate a minimum of two hundred naira to the project.This will ensure that each athlete gets ten million naira grant to enable them prepare adequately for the Tokyo Olympic. We are already two years behind, but we know how resilient our athletes are.Even if it is a year to Tokyo, they will still perform wonders with the right training. We must stop sending our athletes to major competitions, half-baked. We are not in any way competing with the ministry of sport or the state government, we are only adding to what is on ground. We are only adding value to what the government is doing.
What advice would you give to budding young athletes?
Regardless of the type of sport you play, my advice has always been: Please do not focus entirely on sport, because there will be a day when your body will fail you. When that day comes, and you do not have the educational background to face the real life after sport, something will fall off you.A lot of athletes have gone that way.You must balance your sport with education. Someday, when you get tired of sport, you can always fall back on your degree to sustain yourself and your family.