A few years ago, Mount St. Joseph Academy graduate Chierika Ukogu contacted the Nigerian Olympic Committee, asking to represent the country in Rio in 2016 in a rowing event. There was no response.
"Just emailing them and telling them, 'Hey, I want to do this,' meant nothing," said Ukogu, who had rowed competitively as part of teams in high school and at Stanford University, where she earned her bachelor's degree. "They ignored me because I didn't have a plan."
So Ukogu, a dual citizen of the U.S. and the western African nation, made a plan.
She got coaching. She found a boat. She adjusted from being one of eight rowers guided by a coxswain to balancing alone in a shell as wide as her hips. She began training, hard, and her stroke got smoother and faster. She entered races, finishing in the top three.
In October, she proved herself an Olympian, winning a place in Brazil with a third-place finish in the FISA African Qualification Regatta, unexpectedly, for the first time putting a Nigerian rower over a well-respected Egyptian rower. In August, Ukogu will don the green and white of the Nigerian flag and make history as that nation's first woman to compete in an Olympic rowing event.
"She's earned this," said John Parker, head coach at the historic Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia, where Ukogu (pronounced yoo-KOH-goo) is training. "When she first said she wanted to row in the Olympics, to row for Vesper, I said she wasn't good enough. . . . But she's responded really fast. This whole year has been a steep learning curve."
Ukogu, 23, is very much a self-made Olympian. With no financial backing from Nigeria, she has financed her training, travel, and other costs, first with a full-time job and, now that she has left work to focus on the final stretch before the Games, via a GoFundMe page and sales of T-shirts she designed.
To pursue this dream, Ukogu put medical school on hold for two years. If all goes as planned, she will race Saturday in the women's single scull event in Rio and then, two days later, fly to New York to begin classes at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Her motivation is multifaceted. She wants to achieve her personal athletic goal but also hopes to inspire young people in the U.S. and Nigeria. She wants to put African rowers in a positive light, while also finding a way to promote the sport and bring it and its benefits to a country still lacking opportunities for youth.
"If I show people that nothing is impossible, if I can spread that message, I've done my job," she said. "A lot of people say, 'How do you do all these things? How are you so determined?' I know being in the U.S. has given me amazing opportunities, and I have to take advantage of them, not only for me, but for other people."
The idea to join the team came to her while she was watching the 2012 London Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee had offered a single scull rowing spot to a country developing a rowing program. Hamadou Djibo Issaka, a competitive swimmer from Niger, spent three months learning how to row, then took that spot in the Summer Games. He finished last, almost 1:40 behind the gold medalist.
(Quick geography lesson: Niger is a landlocked country of about 20 million people north of Nigeria, a heavily industrialized nation with a population of about 182 million with an Atlantic coast.)
Though a fan favorite, Issaka was roundly mocked in the media, dubbed Issaka the Otter, Hamadou the Keel, and the Sculling Sloth.
"I was so riled up by watching him [and] people coming for him," Ukogu said. "I didn't want this to be the representation that people have of African rowers in general. I said, 'I have dual citizenship. Yeah, I'm going to do this.' "
Ukogu was born in the United States after her parents came here in the 1980s to attend school. She has spent almost every summer of her life in Africa, visiting the small villages with unpaved roads where most of her extended family live.
"I loved going there. It's a part of me, and I consider myself a Nigerian and an American, not one more than the other," she said. "This is a nice way to validate this side of myself."
Ukogu was a competitive cheerleader until she started as a freshman at the Mount and wanted to find another athletic outlet.
With her height - she's about 6 feet tall and leggy, good traits for a sport fueled primarily by quadriceps strength - joining crew was a natural choice.
"She was a phenomenal athlete when she came into the Mount," said Megan Kennedy, the crew program's head coach for the last 18 years. "This is an amazing opportunity, and it's a very Chierika [pronounced shah-REE-kuh] thing to do. She's entrepreneurial as well as an amazing athlete and leader."
Ukogu returned to the school twice in the last year to visit students. Recent graduate Erin McGreevey, crew co-captain, said the rowers were talking about Ukogu long after she left campus.
"She was one of us, and she knew how we were feeling, and it was so motivational, knowing what she's done," said McGreevey, 18. "It was a real honor to be rowing for the same team she rowed for."
Kennedy said she could see the effect Ukogu had on the athletes, most of whom would now be rooting for Nigeria in the women's single scull competition.
"She's really an underdog in her race and in her event, and I know she'll do the absolute best she can," said Kennedy. "That's the philosophy we have with our kids from day one: Get to the end of the season and say, 'Wow. I didn't think I can do that.' I know Chierika will come off the water [in Rio] feeling that way."
Ukogu left her job in June as a women's-health research coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania to train for six hours a day. Some of that time is on land with the other Olympics-bound athletes at Vesper, but much of it is alone on the Schuylkill. Parker, who coached at the 2008 Olympics, watches Ukogu from a small launch, giving advice when needed through a megaphone. Like all good rowers, Ukogu is focused, and that helps her get through the long, sometimes tedious, practices. She is, after all, still learning.
"There's a certain strategy to rowing in a single that I'm still starting to grasp," she said. "It's more of a mental game than an eight, when you have a coxswain dictating what to do and that allows you to shut off your brain."
Ukogu's sister, Ebony, 20, a rising senior at Temple University, said the biggest sacrifice her sister made was missing time with friends.
"She's had to be by herself, but she's always had the support of friends and family. We're all part of her team," she said. "No matter how she does in the Olympics, she'll do great for us."
Ukogu isn't expected to win a medal in these Games, but she is aiming to beat her peers with similar times. She could be a more serious competitor four or eight years from now if she keeps at it, Parker said.
More important, he said, Ukogu's place in the Games is a big deal in Nigeria. The Nigeria Rowing, Canoe, and Sailing Federation is only a grassroots program, one that aims to have athletes in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. A large insurance company's recent donation of 20 canoes to the poorly funded organization made news there.
Ukogu sees bringing her sport to Nigeria as a way to bring educational opportunities to Nigerians. At Stanford, she rowed with athletes recruited from New Zealand and Sweden.