For the first time since 1952, Nigeria will be presenting a gymnast, a 24-year old Maryland native, Uche Eke at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and is expected to fly the Nigeria colours on Saturday, July 24.
Eke, whose father, Daniel, is Nigerian, qualified for the Olympics after capturing the bronze medal in the all-around competition at the African Gymnastics Championships on May 27 in Cairo.
The top two finishers from different countries earned berths in the Olympics, and because Egypt won gold and silver, only one of the automatic qualifiers went to the North Africa nation, and Eke secured the other.
From 3 to 16 years old, Eke spent every Christmas and New Year’s Day in Nigeria with a large family that includes three uncles, one aunt and 10 cousins. Since he turned 17, he has added another return trip in May or June after school ended.
He graduated from the University of Michigan School of Information’s Master of Science in Information program with a 4.0 GPA.
By qualifying for Tokyo Olympics, the Uche Eke said he has reached his ultimate athletic training goal.
“I dream about raising my hand, saluting, getting ready to perform my routines. I dream of walking out on the main stage with the Nigerian colors. Too bad there won’t be any fans there to raise the flag. But it’s ok. It’s all in my heart.
“Both of my dreams came true,” says Uche in an interview with Baltimoresun. “My dream of being an Olympic gymnast is finally right in front of my eyes, and I’m making my parents proud.”
Uche whose father is a Nigerian earlier represented his fatherland in May 2021 at the African Championships in Cairo, Egypt. Then, it was a qualifying event for the Nigerian who has been practicing gymnastics since the age of three.
“What’s driving me is that I want to give back to Nigeria every time I go,” he said, noting that he wants to bring honor to the country where his father was born and where he visits twice a year.
“Combining this degree with my being a Nigerian gymnast, that’s recognition,” Uche boasts, “I could do something hopefully to better the country.
“In gymnastics, it’s not just, ‘Oh, I’m doing a flip and I will land.’ No. I happened to land due to a bunch of practice. A competition is like an exam. If you’ve studied as hard as you could for the exam, then you should be doing well. Same for gymnastics. If you train as hard as you can, then your performance at the competition should reflect your practice.”
Eke knows enough of the Igbo language to understand it and can speak a little. He said he loves the music, food and work ethic, which he has adopted for gymnastics and schooling.
“Being Nigerian and knowing the work ethic out there, that’s why I like to work hard,” he said. “That same hustle and grind every day and desire to better yourself every day comes from my past experiences in Nigeria.
“I’ve seen the poorest of the poor, and I’ve seen people grateful for what they have, and that’s some stuff that I’ve taken for granted. So it makes me appreciate things more and work harder because I know that if they had the opportunity, they wouldn’t let it fly past without giving their all.
“I have the opportunity to get the best schooling and practice. So I might as well try hard every day.”
Since he was a child, Uche Eke longed to perform on the Olympic stage. That objective got a boost in 2017 when he, his father and older brother Daniel Eke II discussed the possibility of competing under the Nigerian flag.
As difficult as finishing within the top four in the U.S. Olympic trials might have been, vying to represent Nigeria had its own obstacles, Daniel Eke II, 29, said.
“If anything, my brother felt more pressure because you have to get top two,” he said. “So it was tougher. And the guys in Africa are good, too. Don’t sleep on them.”
After successfully applying for dual citizenship and graduating from Michigan in May 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in computer science engineering, Uche Eke competed for Nigeria at the 2019 African Games in August in Rabat, Morocco.
He won a gold medal on the pommel horse and a bronze in the parallel bars. He then represented the nation at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships that October in Stuttgart, Germany.
Eke planned to use a final year of eligibility with the Wolverines to prepare for the 2020 African Gymnastics Championships, but the season and meet were cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic, which also pushed back the Summer Olympics by a year.
“I remember my brother calling me and just crying, saying, ‘I worked so hard and for what? For this just to end like this?’” Daniel Eke II said. “And I was like, ‘Uche, no, stay focused. This is where it really matters. This is where you find out how bad you want it.
“You’ve got to find ways to train — whether that’s just you running or doing pushups or finding gyms that are open. This is where you really have to put in the work.’ And that’s exactly what he did. He just grinded all throughout 2020, and he had his shot this year, and it’s pretty surreal.”