It is tempting to call Aminat Olowora the Forrest Gump of Nigeria -only with a better GPA.
Southwestern College’s record-shattering cross country and track star is a national champion distance runner and table tennis wizard, a football star (the soccer kind) and an international traveler. She also, sadly, lost her mother way too soon and had to strike out on her own.
There are no shrimp boats in her future, but the Olympics are a real possibility, according to a pair of SWC coaches who were Olympians themselves.
Olowora crashed onto the national sports radar in the fall when she destroyed the California Community College cross-country record and broke the never surpassed 17-minute barrier on the championship grounds in Fresno. She won the state title, of course, but was equally proud to earn a spot on the honor roll. She is training to do it all over again in 2015 with the Jaguar track and field team.
Olowora was almost victimized by her own transcendent talent. She was so fast and won races so easily that some college coaches figured she must some how be illegal.
Before donning the maroon and gold of Southwestern College, Olowora won three track and field gold medals in Nigeria and represented her home country in an international table tennis tournament.
Olowora said growing up in poverty-stricken, politically-roiled Nigeria was tough.
“I lived in a very low-income area,” she said. “It’s very rough living there. You need to know how to survive. Most people there are living hard lives and many of them did not go to school.”
Olowora knew she wanted a better life for herself so she turned to sports. Growing up around a lot of boys, she played soccer, rode bicycles and played table tennis.
“On every street you see someone playing ping-pong,” she said. “You just pay money and you can play. That’s how I began playing.”
She eventually went on to represent Nigeria at the Junior International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) World Championships.
Olowora’s table tennis career did not last long because a track and field coach recruited her after watching her play soccer.
“He saw me interacting with the guys and he was like wow, who is that girl?” she said.
Hesitant to join, Olowora finally decided to attend a track practice one day. After her first competition, she knew running was for her.
“I remember that I didn’t know anybody there so I was just running on my own and before I knew it I was in second position. I heard my coach yelling to keep going, but five meters before the finish line, I just fell down on the floor,” she said laughing. “I ended up placing fourth and ever since then I kept working hard.”
Olowora’s work ethic earned her three gold medals in the 2012 Nigeria National Sports Festival in Lagos State. She ran off with first place in the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000-meter races.
As a gold medalist she parlayed her name and expertise to create a competition in her city for the local youth. More than 200 people were there, including major companies and the Sports Commissioner of Nigeria. Olowora’s family members were there, too, present medals to those who had won. Children also received backpacks with school supplies as gifts.
“There were games like soccer and ping-pong, all those kids were happy,” she said. “The more I saw them happy, the more it made me happy. I was so happy that day.”
Olowora plans to host another event in the future and name it after her mother, Adijat, who passed away in 2013.
“I lost my mother two days before my birthday,” she said trying to keep her composure. “I don’t know what happened to her, they just called me in March and told me she was dead. They told me she woke up in the middle of the night coughing. They rushed her to the hospital, but before they got there she was already gone. I didn’t get to see her before she died and I still don’t know what was wrong with her. I was so sad about that. She was 43 years old. I didn’t believe she would die so soon.”
Olowora’s family did not have much, but saved everything it had to give her a better opportunity in the United States. Olowora credits her mother with encouraging her through hard times.
“She sacrificed a lot for me and I wouldn’t be where I am without her,” she said. “Every time I’m scared, I just think of her words. I really miss her a lot.”
Olowora’s first competition for SWC was at the Rio Hondo Open, where she set a course record in 16 minutes 33 seconds. After that she was on every college’s radar. Some schools became bitter about her talent and tried to find ways to prevent her from competing. Olowora’s said her season looked doomed.
“I was depressed then,” she said. “I was down. Sometimes I didn’t want to go to practice. I just felt like giving up. I’ve been going through this since I started athletics. When the issue started in California I was trying to work towards (resolving) it and get the papers I needed to.”
It was difficult considering the nine-hour difference between San Diego and Nigeria. Olowora had to wait until midnight to get in contact with the proper people.
Track coach Tonie Campbell had a notion that other schools were afraid of Olowara’s success.
“The problem I have with the whole thing about Aminat was that they were complaining that she was too good to be running with everybody else, but that is a ridiculous, ludicrous argument,” he said. “The best athlete is always better than everybody else, so what are they complaining about? She was the same age as everybody else, she’s got two arms and two legs like everybody else, she’s running the same race, she’s not on a motorcycle and she’s doing the exact same thing. They complain that she’s beating people by so much. Well, you know what? Train your athletes better! She’s raising the level of everybody else.”
Cross-country coach Dr. Duro Agbede said Olowora has the ability to reach great heights.
“The key to athletics is the heart,” he said. “She has heart and works very, very hard. She is a highly dedicated athlete. She set her goals on the Olympics and she has that potential.
She knows what she has to do to get there. I’m very positive that she will be able to succeed.”
Olowora said her faith keeps her strong.
“Somebody told me in the U.S. that anytime someone interviewed me I don’t need to talk about God because nobody believed that here,” she said. “That may be true, but nobody can take that from me. For me to be here today is because of God. I don’t believe much in myself as much as I believe in God.”