Ireti sat cross-legged on the floor at the side of the gymnasium, shaking with a mixture of excitement and mind-numbing fear. With each moment that passed, she expected to wake up and realize everything around her was just a dream.
Not only was it unbelievable that Nigeria would be represented in Artistic Gymnasiums at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but it was way out of this world that little her, Iretiola Ogunsakin, a nobody all the way from Oluyole in Ibadan would be on the Women’s Team!
She was the youngest member of the team and was the only one who had been kept on at Tony International Gymnastics Club despite being unable to pay for classes. As Coach Tony, the head coach at the Club kept telling her uncle, there was just something about her that was extraordinary. He said she reminded him of himself at that age and that her talent was sure to take her places like his had taken him.
Ireti had been visiting her mother’s brother in Abuja for a school holiday when she was eight when she had gone to watch her cousin, Tundun who was two years older, at the club. That was when Coach Tony had spotted her and had insisted she signed on. In less than two years, she had become one of the best students at the Club and had excelled on every apparatus.
Now, here she was, a long way from that wide-eyed girl from Oluyole, about to take part in the Qualifying Round of the Olympics. At that point, the girls on the Nigerian WAG team had forgotten all about the long fight to get there despite everyone saying going to the Olympics was just a waste of time and money. It didn’t matter that they hadn’t received any funding from the Federal Government or that a good percentage of the Nigerians they were representing had no inkling about what on earth they were doing. They didn’t care that no one believed they would even make it past the Qualifying Round not to talk of actually winning any medals, or that they had arrived in Rio on the very day of the Opening Ceremony because of the fiasco with their plane tickets. Nothing could dampen their spirits, not even the hideous tracksuits they’d had to wear for the Opening Ceremony. Being at the Olympics alone was a victory for them and all that mattered was that very moment in time.
Their Team had been scheduled to start with the Vaults, then they would go on to the Floor Exercises, followed by the Uneven Bars, before finishing up with the Balance Beam. There were five girls on their team; Nancy who was 19, Tundun and Jessica who were both 18, Chioma who was 17 and Ireti who was 16. For the Qualifier Round, four of the five girls would compete in each of the events and three of the four scores for each event would be added up to determine if they made it through to the Team Finals. According to Coach Tony’s plan, they would start each event with a good performance to set the pace, followed by the weakest links and then close with the strongest member of the Team to wow the judges. Being the best gymnast on the Team, Ireti was taking part in all four events and was closing out three of them.
When it was finally their turn, the Team was announced and a weak cheer went up from one corner of the Gymnasium, probably some Black Americans showing a little solidarity. The girls were pretty sure there were no Nigerians in the audience!
“Oh my God, I’m so nervous!” Chioma whispered from the front of the line. She was starting out the Floor Exercises and was awaiting her cue to proceed.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” Ireti said, reaching from the back of the line to squeeze her arm.
“Will you stay in place!” Tundun snapped. “The judges are watching, don’t come and disgrace someone here jare!”
“I’m just…” Ireti started.
“Please don’t bring your razzness here!” Tundun cut her off.
Just then, Chioma’s name was announced and she stepped forward to the spring floor. The music started up and she commenced her routine. Ireti’s annoyance with Tundun was totally forgotten as her anxiety escalated. They were actually competing in the Olympics! Until the very moment she stepped onto the Spring Floor, she had somehow believed it would never actually happen.
“Great job girls!” Coach Tony said, high-fiving each girl in turn after the conclusion of the Floor Exercises. “That was amazing! I need that kind of energy on the Vaults. Nancy, remember what I told you, energy on the spring board. Chioma, remember, focus on getting your pre-flight right and on maintaining a tight body position. Ireti, you’re starting this event. You’re building up the momentum, give it everything you’ve got!”
“Sha don’t jinx us!” Tundun murmured under her breath and Nancy snickered.
“What was that?” Coach asked.
“Nothing.” Tundun said and Ireti started to get really angry.
Usually, she let Tundun’s slights pass but she was beginning to get tired of it.
“You’re closing this one out Tundun, it is your forte so bring down the roof, alright?”
“Alright, let’s do this!”
“At least, some of us don’t need to be teacher’s pet to get attention.” Tundun said as the girls walked to the start of the runway.
“What’s your problem!” Ireti hissed, getting really pissed.
“Guys, can we just focus and get this over and done with?” Chioma said.
“Well, you’re my freaking problem!” Tundun ground out.
“Shhhhhh!” Nancy snapped. “We’re on international TV, keep your family issues to yourselves!”
“What did I ever do to you!” Ireti snapped in a harsh whisper.
“Oh God, can we not do this now?” Chioma said, going to chalk up.
“Get your heads in the game guys!” Nancy snapped at them angrily.
“You waltz your way into my home and my life and think you can just take over!” Tundun said through clenched teeth, facing Ireti.
“What is that supposed to mean!” Ireti said, trying to keep a straight face as a mechanical arm bearing a camera swooped past them.
“Oh God!” Nancy groaned and went to join Chioma at the chalk bowl.
“It means you’re a pathetic little parasite and nobody wants you here!” Tundun spat and Ireti recoiled from her in shock. “Do everyone a favour and crawl back into the crappy hole you crawled out from!”
Tears sprang to Ireti’s eyes and she was lost for what to say. She clenched her fists, trying to control her hurt and anger. Her face started to burn with humiliation and she felt the heat spread through her until it seemed it would consume her. She unclenched her fists, feeling a tingling sensation in her finger tips and took deep calming breaths.
Just then, Chioma yelped and leapt back from the plastic chalk bowl.
“It melted and burned me!” she exclaimed, cradling her right hand in her left one.
In shock, they all watched the chalk bowl melt, plastic goo mixing with chalk powder, slipping down the stainless steel pedestal and plopping onto the floor. A few officials ran up to see what was happening and a first aider guided Chioma to the side of the runway to examine her hand.
“What happened?” Ireti asked, as the girls crowded around Chioma, forgetting the fight momentarily.
“Are you alright?” Nancy asked in shock. The bowl had melted right after she’d scooped a handful of chalk.
“I just felt this wave of heat and the thing practically became liquid!” Chioma said.
Coach Tony and Jessica ran up to them from the other side of the gymnasium where they’d been watching.
“What happened? Are you alright?” Coach Tony asked.
“She got scalded. Luckily, it’s nothing serious. Her hand brace caught most of the hot fluid.” The first aider said, rubbing some ointment on Chioma’s fingers.
“Thank God!” Ireti said, heaving a relieved sigh.
“How does it feel?” Coach Tony asked. “We could ask the judges for a postponement, or you could sit this one out.”
“No, it’s fine.” Chioma said.”
“Are you sure?” Nancy asked crouching in front of her.
“Yeah.” Chioma replied.
“I’ll be right back.” Coach Tony said, going to speak with the officials.
“Thank God you’re fine.” Nancy said. “Imagine coming all the way to the Olympics just to go and get a freak injury!”
“Abi oh! Before we had even started anything sef!” Ireti said.
“It’s not too hard to imagine when we have Madam Jinx in our midst!” Tundun retorted.
“Abeg, don’t start this thing again biko!” Chioma said.
“Can you two stop this nonsense?” Nancy said.
“I’m sure it’s her bad head that just wants to ruin all our chances here.” Tundun said.
“You’re the one who has a bad head!” Ireti fired back.
“Can you guys just hear yourselves? You’re both ridiculous!” Jessica said, disgusted. “I’m embarrassed by you both!”
“Well you can tell her all that juju her mother has been doing won’t work here!” Tundun said.
“And you and your mother can stop spreading lies about other people up and down!” Ireti replied.
“You and your mother can stop manipulating my father!”
“Okay girls, the officials have called a ten minute break.” Coach Tony said, returning and interrupting the bickering. Ireti and Tundun stared at each other in sullen silence while Chioma, Jessica and Nancy heaved relieved sighs.
After the break, the Vaults event went on without any other incidence, not even the silly fight between Ireti and Tundun.
The Uneven Bars started with Jessica, followed by Nancy. While Tundun was up, Ireti waited at the side, her heart thumping and her hands shaking. She went over her routine in her head, both looking forward to and dreading the moment it would be her turn. Just calm down she chided herself. She wondered if her mother and six siblings would be watching on the old black and white TV with the crooked antenna. She wondered if they would even have power supply in the first place. The last time she’d spoken with her mother, she had told her their little I-better-pass-my-neighbour generator had packed up again. For the millionth time, she asked herself if she should have stayed behind at the Hair Dresser’s shop in Ibadan instead of chasing this dream. At least by now, she would have been helping her mother out with their finances. She watched Tundun on the Bars absently, lost in thought.
Tundun was almost at the end of her routine and was performing a flip from the high bar to the low bar when her hand slipped. She made a wild grab for the low bar but didn’t have enough momentum and she missed. Coach Tony who was spotting her stretched out his arms to catch her fall. The spectators gave a collective gasp of horror as it became apparent that she was going to smack her head against the bar on her fall, and at the angle at which she was falling, the impact would very likely snap her neck.
Ireti felt the heat rush through her body again, with an intensity that threatened to set her ablaze. The next thing she knew was that she was whizzing through the air and grabbing at Tundun a split second before she hit the bar. The top of Tundun’s head grazed the Bar instead, dislodging the doughnut bun she had packed her hair in. Tundun’s hair went all over Ireti’s face and filled her mouth as they both fell heavily into Coach Tony’s out stretched arms and the three of them collapsed onto a heap on the floor as 29.6 million viewers around the world had their collective jaws hit the ground.