“My aim in Nur-Sultan is to win gold and set a new world record. I can definitely keep getting stronger. I feel like I can break a new record, set a new total.”
Lucy Ejike is already little short of a Para powerlifting legend.
The Nigerian has been to five consecutive Paralympic Games from Sydney 2000 to Rio 2016, winning a medal at each – three gold and two silver. Along the way, she has moved up through the weight categories – from up to 44kg at Sydney and Athens 2004, to up to 48kg at Beijing 2008, then up to 56kg at London 2012, and up to 61kg in Rio.
She’s gone from lifting 102.5kg in 2000, to 142kg today. And the scenes that unfolded at Rio 2016 were perhaps her crowning glory – and one of that Games’ standout sporting moments.
Battling a tough field for supremacy, particularly Fatma Omar from Egypt, she had to break the world and Paralympic record three successive times in order to win, pushing 136kg, then 138kg, then 142kg, to give Nigeria their third gold medal of the event.
In short, there’s very little for the defending world champion (she won that title in Mexico City 2017, too) left to achieve in the sport. And yet the 41-year-old, who has been a wheelchair user since age one due to polio, is as hungry as ever for titles.
“I am feeling great and my training is going very well – I train for two hours a day,” said the mother-of-two. “My aim in Nur-Sultan is to win gold and set a new world record. I can definitely keep getting stronger. I feel like I can break a new record, set a new total.”
She is still reeling from those dramatic Rio scenes, three years ago.
“Winning a gold medal in Rio was one of the greatest things that has happened in my life, because those game were so tough and challenging,” said Ejike about her battle with Omar. “I had to put myself together to win the gold and set three world records.
“My experience in Brazil was great, because I knew I was going to face a very strong athlete. I prayed, I talked to myself about what to do, and I was courageous to face the battle.”
Of all her experiences – silver at her debut Games in Sydney, aged just 22, her first gold at Athens, and the brilliant performance in Beijing that retained her title, it is Rio that stands out the most.
“Doing five Paralympics has been great, but Rio was my favourite. Not just because I won the gold medal and set three world records. Above all, it was because I was Nigerian team captain and the flag bearer.”
Ejike has seen her sport evolve massively over the last two decades, and is keen to be a part of its future, when she stops competing.
“There have been a lot of improvements,” she said. “Para powerlifting is becoming more lively. We are getting more athletes.
“I have been advertising Para powerlifting in Nigeria by creating awareness, and organising Para powerlifting workshops. I gather some athletes, training them [in the sport] now. More people are doing the sport. I would like to set up a foundation to improve sports development among Para athletes in Nigeria. I’d like to be a coach when I stop competing.”
Love for the sport
Awareness has certainly been raised in her homeland: in 2016, Ejike was named Female Athlete of the Year at the 2016 Nigeria Sports Awards.
Above all, it is her love of the sport that shines through the brightest.
“I am highly motivated to keep winning, especially when I see myself as world number one. My hopes for Nur-Sultan, and then Tokyo 2020 are to win gold and set new records, as usual.
“My secret to getting stronger is determination, hardworking and discipline. I love that it makes me feel stronger. Nigerians are strong in Para powerlifting because they are focused and determined.”
It’s a warning to anyone thinking about taking her crown.
The Nur-Sultan World Championships kicks off in 12 July and will be livestreamed on World Para Powerlifting website and Facebook page.