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Adedamola Roberts – A Pledge To Bravery

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Damola Roberts

Damola Roberts | Photo – Olarenwaju Ali

Let me win but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt- Special Olympics athlete oath

What does it mean to live with Down Syndrome or any form of disability in Nigeria?

It is wishing that you are given a thought to seat at the table; it is hoping that when you show up at a place, no one is avoiding you; it is pretending to be okay when someone makes snide remarks; it is getting advice to seek spiritual help; it is the total disregard of your existence, and it is the blatant excuse from merited opportunities.

For families who have one or more children with special needs, they face even more stigmatisation from a society that prides itself as an enabling society for love. After all, “one-love keeps us [Nigerians] together.

Enters Damola Roberts. 

Damola Roberts is Nigeria’s pride with 5 Olympics gold and one bronze medals in swimming.  

Damola Roberts

Damola Roberts | Olanrewaju Ali

Born into a family of doctors [from generations,] Damola’s mother, Alero and father, Shehu, discovered that their first son had trouble speaking, and walking and sought a solution that led to the diagnosis of Down Syndrome. Although there are no recent records to show how many people are living with at least one disability, A.A Adeyokunnu, writes in his paper “The incidence of Down’s syndrome in Nigeria,” in the Journal of Medical Genetics, that “studies of Down’s syndrome covering a period of 9 years revealed an incidence of 1 in 865 live births in a Nigerian hospital.” Unrelenting, Alero visited the UK with hopes for a solution and was told there was none. 

The doctor’s focus drastically shifted. She enrolled as a kindergarten student as her son. With so many incidents that remain etched in her memory, now a teacher, she says that one reality check episode for her was when his playmates in their estate were not available to play. 

“I remember that there was a particular Saturday morning, literally 25 years ago…it was unusually quiet, and I couldn’t understand why. It turns out that it was a Common Entrance [into secondary school] day and the children in the neighbourhood had gone to write common entrance and it suddenly struck me that my child would not write Common Entrance.

“And I must confess there are repeated life events that make me realise that my child is not going to be a part of some events and there is nothing anyone can do about it. We’ve had people take their child[ren] out of a class and a swimming pool because Damola was there. Sometimes, I have to catch myself short and not interpret people’s behaviour from the lens of stigmatisation.”

“It has made me incredibly sensitive to discrimination of any sort. I recognise it from 10 kilometres away,” she continued.

Even more difficult was the constant bullying he faced at his first primary school and his younger brother [Demilade]’s inability to fight them off. Fortunately, with his family’s support and treatment, it was not difficult to “educate people on how to see him.”

Damola Roberts

Damola Roberts | Photo – Olanrewaju Ali

Then in 2003, at the age of 18 and in a school for children with special needs, Children Development Centre, the Special Olympics International decided to hold their competition for the World Summer Games in Ireland. And Nigeria needed to form an Olympics team to represent them. This saw the director of the Special Olympics movement, a Federal Government initiative, visit his school.

He would go on to represent Nigeria in the Special Olympics in Ireland in the track and field 100 metres game. Despite a disqualification for not running in his lane, he received a medal in Nigeria.

Nigeria, indeed, showed support via the medal for his attempt to represent their country.

“It was quite disheartening that I was disqualified but Nigeria did recognise the spirit of competition in me, they recognised that the disqualification resulted from my disability, so they saw the spirit and thought in their kind hearts that I had to be awarded and that ignited the fire to keep going.”

Before the medal, something incredible had happened.

“There was a crowd waiting when we landed. It can’t get any better than that. Our sponsors, my family, Nigerians, everybody, and it has been like that since. The crowd just keeps getting bigger.” This achievement also brought alive slogans he had learned- “Who needs to be normal?,” “I may not be normal, but I will compete.”

Beyond this, it was also the time to strategise on utilising his other strengths. 

Damola Roberts

Damola Roberts | Photo – Olanrewaju Ali

Enters swimming.

With the ability to swim from childhood and born to parents who represented Ibadan and Lagos respectively, he started to train with Demilade, and together they explored if he could swim for the Olympics. His exceptional ability made him qualify to become a pioneer member of the Swimming team for the Special Olympics. 

His mother’s driver, Anifowoshe Sikiru, would also become his coach. For Sikiru, from the moment he saw him, it was agape love. He says laughing,

“Damola is so special to me that I will never allow anyone to talk down on him, not even his parents. When I came to his house the first time, I looked at him and knew that he would be a great person. I took care of him and would take him swimming. So when his mother called me to tell me that I should be his caretaker, I said, ‘instead of me following Damola to the pool to train, let me start training him.’ ”

While he started training him, Damola’s mother had another pleasant surprise. She introduced him to the rest of the team to coach them. “Damola has made me a hero,” he says with a wide grin. With medals in Abu Dhabi in 2019, Sikiru is confident that the 35-year-old Damola would have taken home another medal save for the coronavirus that hit this year. 

Damola Roberts

Damola Roberts | Olanrewaju Ali

With gold medals in Los Angeles 2015, Greece 2011, Ireland 2003 and Abu Dhabi [bronze] in 2019, all his achievements have made him have a sense of purpose, direction, sense of identity and belief that he can bring some value to society, their family and country in the Special Olympics. 

“The world is now open to opportunities where you can compete. Look, I was born with Down Syndrome but I am a gold medalist…It is refreshing that I have been able to educate and change the perception of who I am and my abilities.”

“I would like to change the lack of education on special needs. We need more of that in our community for people to understand, to be exposed and highly educated on the need for family support like my mother said.”

For a few seconds, he is slightly distracted and turns to his brother, who is sitting beside him. I say, “I think he is trying to say something.” “Ooh, he is just trying to place his head close to mine.” He also cannot wait to slice carrots, peel potatoes and lay the table for dinner, some of his favourite things.

For Nigerians who are not as fortunate with Damola, parents and sponsors who hide people with special needs from the public do not understand the effect it has in the long run.

“Carry out your research, don’t think there is no one willing to train or help you. In my career of being an athlete, my siblings have run campaigns. I have been a part of the United Sports [for Basketballers and makes up ‘normal’ children and people like myself].”

I look at Damola and I think of a butterfly. A butterfly is not born in its glory as many are. And whether it realises it or not, it is transforming to something beautiful that only those on the outside can see. At first, no one thinks anything of it because of its form. By the time, others can see it for what it is, it is completely aware of self and knows that one of its life’s goal is to add to the Earth’s beauty. I ask, “What does a butterfly remind you of? With a glint in his eyes, he tells me that Butterflies remind him that, “Your past doesn’t determine who you are.”

**Demilade Roberts, Damola’s brother, was very helpful in this interview.

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