Canoeist Johny Akinyemi, is the first athlete to paddle for Nigeria at the world’s major sport event. Born and raised in the UK to a Nigerian father and a British mother, Akinyemi’s path to the 30th Olympiad has been as winding as the whitewater courses he navigates. He first started canoeing aged 12 in northern England and in 2006 he emerged as the junior British national champion. But a year later he gave up his top ranking in the country of his birth to compete for the country of his heritage following a visit to his father’s homeland. “It was just such a great experience,” remembers Akinyemi of his time in the West African country. “Just to see where your roots are, to see your heritage and what makes you a person — there’s a Nigerian boy within me and there’s a British boy within me, I’ve only seen the British side of things until I went back to Nigeria and saw my Nigerian heritage and that’s something I’m proud of.”
Akinyemi says people in Nigeria “welcomed him with open arms,” making it easier for him to embrace his roots and change his Olympic allegiance. “It made a lot of sense to me because there’s always been questions about my identity which has been unanswered until I started to look into my family and my family history and stuff like that and gone back to my roots.”
A talented athlete, Akinyemi wants to leave his mark in this year’s Olympics. In 2008 Akinyemi came agonizingly close to going to the Beijing Games but missed out on qualification by a single place. That failure made him more determined to train even harder to improve his power, technique and speed and be able to compete at the top level in the physically demanding sport of canoeing.
In February this year his Olympic dream finally came true when he made Nigerian history by winning the 2012 African slalom championships and securing a place for London. Now, just days before his quest for Olympic success gets underway, Akinyemi admits he is “pretty nervous” but adds that he is looking forward to his first Olympiad. He says he’s determined to give his best and try to win for his country and make his father proud. “If I won a medal it would mean everything, all the hard work would be worth it,” he says. “My dad would be so proud because he was proud of me for qualifying for the Games and he spent a lot of time in Africa helping me get to where I am today. So I think it would be really good, it would almost be winning it for him.”
But win or lose, Akinyemi, who is also studying to be an accountant after his sporting career is over, wants to make sure that Nigeria stays on the canoeing map. He says there is a lot of potential in Nigeria for the sport and many more athletes can follow on his footsteps.