Sports flows in her blood like current through conduit pipe. At age, 12, when her peers were still undecided of what to make out of life, Rachael Tonjoor, a national swimming champion, had already mapped her path in swimming. Now the game has taken her round the world.
In this interview, Rechael talks about how she caught the bug early in life, the neglect swimmers suffer in the country, how the sport can be improved upon, among other issues. Excerpts:
When did you start swimming?
I started swimming at the age of 12 years . That was in 2003. I got encouragement from my elder sister, Joy, who was always telling me to escort her to the stadium where she practised. .
How was it like the first time you represented the state?
That was at the national sports festival held at Abuja. I was a bit scared initially but my coach told me that I should just compose myself and do it the way I do in training back in Benin. So, I kept to his advise and I regained my composure. Though I couldn’t win an individual medal but I got two medals – a gold and a silver – in relay races. I took up the challenge to get an individual medal in the next sports festival held in Ogun State in 2006 where I won a silver medal in my individual race.
Since you started representing the country on the international scene which has been your most tasking outing?
That was the All African Games in Maputo in 2011 where I won a bronze medal in the 50 metres breast stroke. I was really tensed up qualifying for the final. Earlier that day I had emerged sixth in the heats. So during the final race later that evening I was feeling really jittery as we get set. I went into a marathon in silent prayer before the race and God showed me His favour against all odds.
Does it mean you go into the ritual of praying before you start a race?
Well, you can say that. In the case of the race in Maputo I was under a serious challenge to do well because during the previous All African Games in 2007 I did not win a medal. So, I told God why I deserve a medal in 2007 and He answered my prayers.
So what would you say about the level of sponsorship and support for the game?
It has not been encouraging. In Nigeria, swimming suffers neglect. Swimmers are not developed by having regular competitions. We don’t have committed sponsors who will ensure that we are kept busy all year round. For instance, in a year we normally don’t have more than one contest to participate in so as to keep us abreast of modern techniques in the sport. Everybody concentrate on football which cannot fetch more than a medal in comparison to swimming where a lot of medals are available. There is also the problem of lack of modern facilities. For instance, in Edo State we have just a 20 metres pool which in this modern time is grossly inadequate. The inthing now is the 50 metres pool. So when we go for any competition you will first and foremost learn how to do well in the 50 metres pool which your opponents have already mastered. We need more sponsors to support the growth of swimming in Nigeria. As we speak now only the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS) competition is held once in a year. So, in a situation where the competition is not held, like it happened last year, then we have nothing to keep us busy.
Have you had any recognition from the Edo State Government?
As at now, I don’t have any kind of special recognition from the state government despite the honour I have always brought to the state since my 13 years in swimming. The only form of recognition was that my picture was emblazoned on the cover of a compendium published recently by the state government to showcase its achievements.
Who is your role model in the sport?
My role model is a lady from Jamaica. She presently holds the world championships record.
Of all your representation of Nigeria which do you consider the most memorable?
That is my participation in the Rio Olympics in Brazil earlier this year. Though I did not win any medal but the experience of competing with some of the best in the world will be with me for a lifetime. The experience was breathtaking.
Who is your role model in the sport?
My role model is a lady from Jamaica. She presently holds the world championship record in 50 metres breast stroke, my speciality. I always watch the video of her performance to the extent that I copy every of her moves. I believe that if she, a black girl like me can do it then one day I will do it too.