Chierika “Coco” Ukogu is an American-born Nigerian professional rower. During the 2015 FISA African Olympic Qualification Regatta, she qualified to represent Nigeria at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, making her the first Nigerian to achieve such feat.
Date of Birth: October 2, 1992
Place of Birth: Pennsylvania, USA
The athlete, who is also a graduate of Stanford University, trained with the US team before the Rio 2016 Olympics.
The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Ukogu, known as Coco to many, says she feels a strong connection to Nigeria, where many of her relatives live and where she spent many summers. She and her siblings were immersed in the culture. “We watch Nollywood movies, we love dancing ‘Alingo,’ we eat the food. All of it,” Writing from Rio, she says she’s proud of her Nigerian-American heritage.
Ukogu’s rowing career dates back to 2006 while attending Mount Saint Joseph Academy, a powerhouse of a rowing school on the outskirts of America’s crew capital, Philadelphia, PA. She graduated in 2010. The next stop for the Pennsylvania native was Palo Alto, where Ukogu studied pre-med and rowed for Stanford’s women’s crew team. Chierika put her dreams of going to medical school on hold. However, she plans to continue her studies in medicine as Ukogu is scheduled to fly back to USA just two days after racing. She is to begin medical school at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City.
Ukogu’s Olympic dreams were awoken while watching Nigerien athlete Hamadou Djibo Issaka compete at the London 2012 Summer Games. Issaka was the ultimate wild card. A swimmer by trade, he started rowing three months before the games. According to Ukogu, Issaka faced a lot of flack. He finished last, and despite his underdog appeal, he was dubbed the “sculling sloth” due to his less-than-impressive performance. The young Nigerian-American rower was pissed off. “At that time I had been rowing for about six years, and I wanted to continue his legacy and shake things up,” says Ukogu. “I wanted to show people more African rowers and just what we can accomplish.”
Ukogu spent years emailing the Nigerian Rowing and Canoeing Federation to no avail. At that point, she hadn’t started sculling, the style of rowing she’d need to master if she were to compete at the Olympics for Nigeria. She was ambitious but without a plan. Without experience in a single, she didn’t have much to show for herself.
Looking back, Ukogu says she’s glad they ignored her. “Their silence pushed me to make bigger commitments to rowing after graduating university. I put my dreams of medical school on hold and I dove headfirst into rowing,” she says.
In an interview she had before the Olympics, Ukogu said “It is my ultimate goal to be the 1st Nigerian to row at the Olympic Games.
“Heading into Rio, it’s a really wonderful opporunity for Nigeria. This is the first time we’ve had an athlete at the Olympics in the sport of Rowing.”
Sources: Okayafrica, Wikipedia, pulse.ng