When Olaitan Ibrahim, one of Nigeria’s Bronze Medalists from the Tokyo Paralympics, first appeared on the powerlifting scene in May 2012, she achieved instant success. Within three days of starting to power lift, Olaitan was able to come in third and was, as a result, able to collect some prize money that was given by Osun State Governor Rauf Aregbesola.
“The third day of my arrival, we went to one event, and I came third, our Governor then, Mr. Rauf Aregbesola awarded us with little money. Since that day, I promised myself that I will try my best to make good use of my ability to represent the State and make it proud.
Olaitan’s inspiration to start a sporting career had been sparked by a stepsister Bashirat Ibrahim, who in 2012 represented Nigeria on the international footballing scene.
“Anytime I saw her playing, there was always this joy within me when her name, Bashirat Ibrahim was mentioned in the media,” says Olaitan. Bashirat’s fame prompted Olaitan to start wondering which sporting activities were available for someone like her.
Unlike Bashirat, the sister with fully functional limbs that could play football at the national and international levels, Olaitan’s legs had been paralyzed by childhood polio, so imaging a sport that could accept a person living with a disability was difficult.
But spurred on by the pride of a successful sporting sister, Olaitan woke up one day and went to the Osun State Sports Council at the stadium in Osogbo. That is where she found people living with disabilities involved in sports.
“I went to Osun State Sports Council at the stadium in Osogbo, one of the coaches who saw me looking around, called me and asked if I would like to do sports like power-para lifting, I was so curious because I did not know what power para-lifting meant, I asked him what kind of sport was that he said I should follow him. When I got inside the gym, I saw a lot of people like me training and I was very happy,” she tells Timescape Magazine.
After she had been introduced to power para-lifting, the first time, she went away for six months unsure whether that was something she could do. But after some time spent concentrating on her hairdressing and trading business, she decided her love for sports was too strong and deserved a chance.
“I loved the sport so much, so I decided to start power-lifting as my first sport,” she says.
Since that decision to join the para powerlifting, the 35-year-old Olaitan says her powerlifting has been growing, thanks to the boost of confidence provided by that first cash prize she got from the governor three days into her career. The Governor of Osun State was to later add her another cash prize when she emerged as a gold medalist at a National Sports Festival in Eko.
“Out of 172 athletes of Osun State, I was the one that won a gold medal for the State. I was delighted. The State gave me a monetary reward of N500, 000 ($1,215),” she says.
After the Eko Games, Olaitan was able to continue with her trading business, while training at the same time. She also went for national trials to participate in different international sporting events. The national trials were between 2013 and 2016.
“During these trials, I had this senior athlete who had been a major obstacle for me to get a national slot. I could not match her during this period, not until 2017 when we were called to a national trial meant to select athletes for the national camp ahead of a major championship then,” she says.
This is when Olaitan secured a slot to represent Nigeria as part of the team that went to Mexico for the 2017 World Championships. The games in Mexico were Olaitan’s first international game.
At the Mexico games, Olaitan came second. She then went to The Hague and the 2019 world para powerlifting championships in Kazakhstan where she also came second with silver in the women’s 67-kilogram event.
Success at these games, culminated in Olaitan being picked to be part of the Tokyo 2020 para-Olympics, although the excitement was affected by Covid-19
“The year 2020 came with the problem of Covid-19, which scattered our world, no training, no money, nothing at all. I must thank our Honorable Minister of Sports, Mr. Sunday Dare because he arranged for us palliatives for the Para-athletes for us to survive the period. We were later called to camp in December 2020 to prepare for a Games in Manchester in the United Kingdom, a world championship. I could not train much for this, but I went to the tournament and won a gold medal after which I went to Edo National Sports Festival in April 2021, I still won gold in my category for Osun State.”
To Olaitan, who is still single, preparations for the 2020 Paralympic Games were good. “We were in the camp for like three months. We really enjoyed the camp because it helped us a lot, it allowed us to improve so well after the Covid-19 lockdown in Nigeria,” she said.
Being to her first-ever Summer Games was an experience she would never forget so soon.
“I was excited being part of Team Nigeria to Tokyo Games. I can say these are the most beautiful Games I have attended because this Paralympics was so good for me as I was able to register my name on the medal chart. This is a tournament every athlete is praying to attend, I am so glad because the competitions I have been attending before now, I didn’t meet so many athletes or see people from different countries, neither have I participated with them like this nor made friends with different people from different countries as I did in Tokyo. So, it is like a dream come true for me as I’m now called a Paralympian,” she said.