Precious Orji on turning talent into Paralympic gold for Nigeria
It was love at first lift for Josephine Precious Orji, the Nigerian para powerlifting star who is now an Olympic champion and world record holder.
Orji’s life changed dramatically for a second time in 2001 when she visited a gym in her hometown, Owerri, in Imo State, to try out powerlifting for the first time in her life.
Just two hours later she surprised herself by declaring: “I want to reach the peak of this sport.”
It as a defining moment for the 41-year-old, who has lost the use of her legs following a bout of polio as a child.
Determination, natural talent, a lot of hard work and some support from state and national governments has saw her reach that peak at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio.
Since then she has had her second child and suffered several setbacks but is determined to reach the heights again in a sport that she is as passionate about today as she was in 2001.
“I lifted 70kg on the first day, it was very simple and normal to me,” she told BBC Sport Africa.
“The coach said he had never seen anyone lift that even 50kg on their first attempt.”
Para powerlifting for disabled athletes sees competitors lie on their backs to push the weights above themselves.
“Coach Lucky Ibe told me, I would be a champion, and that I’d get on a plane, travel the world to international competitions,” Orji continued.
“I couldn’t sleep I was carrying those weights in my dream that night, so I went back home and quit my job and I started training.”
The then 22-year-old was so determined to make a success of her new-found passion that she walked away from her job the very next day.
She had been working as a computer expert in a busy cyber-cafe, a job she says she was good at, enjoyed and a popular member of the team.
It was the beginning of career that would see her achieve the heights she was so determined to reach but also leave her with those low moments that all athletes endure.
Her highlight so far was winning gold in her category at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio with a world record lift, that has not been bettered since.
“I felt like walking that day, leaving that wheelchair to walk with my legs,” she remembers.
“People from other countries were jubilating, holding me, asking me to take pictures with them, asking for my shirt, and to sign autographs on their face or anywhere.
“I remembered all these popular musicians – I felt like them, that night I could not sleep.”
Orji’s category in Rio was one of the final events in Rio and her gold was Team Nigeria’s eighth of the Games and sixth in para-powerlifting to match the six they won in the sport four years earlier.
Training of a lifetime
Orji’s gold medal did not come as easily as that first lift 15 years earlier instead it involved an intense training camp with the Nigerian Para-Powerlifting Federation.
“We were in camp for six months, we were training like soldiers, my body was strong like stone,” she explained.
“We were being taken care of and paid due allowances for the duration, the atmosphere was really positive.”
While some Nigerian teams and athletes have to protest and organise strikes in order to be paid their bonuses for their international success Orji was one of the lucky ones.
After the games the then Governor of her state of birth (Imo) Rochas Okorocha not only lauded the teams achievements but also ensured they were rewarded financially too.
“It is only normal to support people with disabilities and who are less privileged, Imo state athletes won medals and it was only normal reward them,” Okorocha, who is now a senator, told BBC Sport Africa.
That support extends beyond just rewarding success with the state effectively employing a number of its able-bodied and disabled to allow them to train all year-round.
From highs to struggles
Since that golden moment though things have not been plain sailing for Orji.
She missed winning a second World Championships in Mexico 2017 as she gave birth to her second child.
With just one athlete being chosen in each category for international events that meant her position as the country’s representative hung in the balance.
“I was under pressure from the federation and coaches to come back as soon as possible, despite my medical report, it was like no one was listening,” she explained.
“I lost some strength, I did not enjoy my maternity leave because I had to get back 3 months after, I was bleeding at times during training.
“But somehow it wasn’t enough, I am still struggling, I get sick sometimes, and I never got sick before.”
She overcame those struggles to establish herself as number once choice again and represented Nigeria at the 2019 World Para Powerlifting Championships in Kazakhstan, which also doubled as a qualifier for the Tokyo Paralympics.
However things did not go to plan after an error from the team manager left her struggling to challenge for the title.
He mistakenly told officials that her first lift would be a relatively modest 125kg, meaning she would be lifting in Group B with the lower-ranked athletes.
With a limited number of lifts permitted it meant she was not able to react to the totals that other competitors lifted successfully.
“My name was showing on the score board as a World Record holder, yet I was stuck in Group B, that was so disappointing, I didn’t want to compete,” she said
“But I needed to maintain my position despite that when a champion is defeated, it is shameful.
“For the first time in life I came back empty handed, it was a disgrace to me.
“But I am doing this for my name and my children will know their mother kept giving her all.”
Orji’s biggest lift of 143kg was 17 kilos lighter than her world record and was only good enough for fourth place, the first tournament has returned home from without a medal.
She in fact lifted the same weight as Egypt’s bronze medallist Randa Mahmoud, who was given the podium place as she has the lower body weight.
Her lift was enough to qualify her for the postponed Tokyo Paralympics, which are now set for 2021 due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, however she is not assured of a place on the team yet.
Loveline Obiji is also pushing for selection after claiming the silver in Kazakhstan leaving the world record holder waiting to prove herself at further trials to impress the Nigeria Para-Powerlifting Federation.
Once again though Orji’s fierce determination in the face adversity has come to the fore.
“I do not believe in ‘what will be will be’, we have to stand and work for what we want, I will not quit until I reach the peak of the sport again,” she insisted.