Roland Ezuruike won gold in the men’s lightweight powerlifting event at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games. The 42-year-old tells Idris Adesina about his life and more in this interview
You and other powerlifters were unable to attend the recently-concluded World Championships in France after preparing for the competition. What went wrong?
It was a sad development for us – especially me – because we had prepared very well for it and it is the first time in a long while that we would be attending the World Championships with such a large number of athletes but it couldn’t happen because we were denied visas by the French Embassy. It is the first time in my life that I would be denied visa to a country where I would be attending a competition. It was very painful reading and watching on the internet how someone took the title I would have added to my collection. However, there are other competitions this year and I hope we will be able to attend and do the country proud.
At the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, you won gold – which is an improvement from your silver in 2014. What spurred you on to get the medal?
My goal since I started powerlifting is to win all my competitions but as life will have it, you win some and lose others. In 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland, the categories they used were different from what we have at regular Paralympics and the World Championships – the same happened in Australia. I lost the gold to Paul Kehinde whose weight category is closer to the category used in 2014 but I am happy that I beat him in Australia this year. The zeal to succeed is always at the back of my mind when I am competing.
How do you feel beating Kehinde to the gold at the Commonwealth Games?
I was excited and fulfilled despite it being a tough competition between us. Kehinde is one of the best powerlifters in the world and he is a very hardworking man. When I discovered that we would compete together in the same category at the Commonwealth Games again this year, I didn’t believe that I would beat him but I just worked harder and made up my mind to see the result. When he lifted his weight and couldn’t go further, I took the advantage and I won. It’s a very healthy rivalry between us and I am happy that Nigeria got the two medals in that category ahead of the man from England (Ali Jawad) – who is a former world champion in my category (54kg). Also because my medal was the first gold for Nigeria at the Games, it made it very special. I was also the first gold medallist at the Rio 2016 Paralympics.
On May 29, the Federal Government held a reception for the Commonwealth Games athletes in Abuja. How did you feel after the reception when no reward was announced?
I was disappointed. We went through a lot to get ready for that competition. We were expecting that some form of reward would be given to us when we were told that the President would receive us on May 29. Many of us rely solely on sports to feed our families and pay bills. The current state of the country is very discouraging to para-athletes and motivation for those of us in sports come in the form of rewards from the government. It is like when a father sends a child on an assignment and the child does well but the father fails to praise him – the child would not be motivated to do well another time. We waited for a long time to see the President but eventually, it was the Vice-President who came to see us and gave us handshakes only. It was very painful that we had to travel all the way there for only a handshake. I think there should be a special consideration for athletes with disabilities because it takes a lot of courage and determination for many of us to go into sport.
You are the Paralympic record holder in the 54kg category (200kg) but the world record in the event is held by an Egyptian – Sherif Othman (205kg). Do you think you can you beat the record?
My aim was to beat that record in France but unfortunately we couldn’t attend the competition. Partially, I am happy that I have a record that still stands and I am targeting an extension of that at the next Games in Tokyo in 2020. For the world record, I believe that I will break it and set a new one that will take a long time to break. I remembered that I attempted to break it in 2016 at the Paralympic Games but my attempt failed. There are still more competitions for me to participate in and I won’t stop training hard for me to achieve that target.
What were the challenges you faced growing up with your disability?
Growing up as a person with disability was not easy at all but my parents and family were very supportive.
What inspired you into powerlifting?
Powerlifting started for me as a hobby. I was inspired by the female powerlifters from Imo State like Josephine Orji and the others. They started the sport before me and I used to see them wearing the national colours. I decided to join them and that was how the journey began. My first competition was in 2007.
Was it easy as a sportsman in the beginning?
When I started, it was not easy at all because I faced a lot of challenges. Some people didn’t understand why I would pick up sports but my determination to succeed and the support I got from my parents – especially my father made it worth the while. Some people were laughing at me because they didn’t understand why a person with disability like me would be lifting weights. Moving around was another challenge because drivers do not have enough patience to carry us but now I am grateful to God that I am even a source of inspiration to many people.
What do you think could be done to encourage more people with disabilities to come into sports?
There are many things that could be done. The government should first provide adequate facilities for us to train well. It is always tough training with these equipment that are not like what we compete with when we travel. There are better training equipment in Lagos than what we have here in Owerri but it can be made to go round since powerlifters are all over the country. Also, private organisations can provide incentives through their corporate responsibilities. They can reach out to those people with disabilities on the streets and assist them in picking up one sport or the other – there are other sports people with disabilities can do and excel in apart from powerlifting. The government also should assist us in attending more competitions because when the others see that those doing it are busy and engaged, they will be motivated to come and join.
Powerlifters have recently been winning more laurels than able-bodied athletes at multi-sports competitions. What is the team’s driving force in Rio?
The secret is that we have a passion for what we do and we believe that we can excel in it no matter what we face. We have more challenges than able-bodied athletes but the decision to channel our anger and energies into the sport has been responsible for our achievements.
Have you suffered any form of discrimination as a person living with disability?
Yes, but I have risen above it and I don’t allow it to bother me. Discrimination is a thing we face almost daily. It comes from anybody and anywhere. People find it difficult to get accommodation even when they have their money. Thank God I am married – some of our colleagues find it difficult to get married. But I can say it is getting a little better now because we have become public figures.
How did you meet your wife?
I met her in 2013 and she didn’t mind my condition – my wife is able-bodied. We got married in 2014 and we have two children now. I will say she has been a blessing to me.
Would you allow your children pick up sports?
Yes I will. Sport is now more than what one does for recreation. I have decided that along with their education, my children have to pick up one sport – preferably weightlifting.
What is your advice for people with disabilities who want to come into sports?
They should persevere because they will face a lot of challenges. The situation will be tough and there is little hope but if they believe in themselves and keep going with their inner strength, they will get a meaning out of their lives at a point. They should have a motivation because no matter how long it takes, their hard work will eventually pay off.
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