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row2k Interview: Onyeka Oguagha
June 24, 2020
Oli Rosenbladt, row2k

Onyeka Oguagha rowing with Rutgers

Onyeka Oguagha's parents moved from Nigeria to the United States in the 1980s, and Oguagha ended up as a walk-on on the Rutgers University women's rowing team, and earned a spot in the Rutgers 1V by her senior year, in 2017. After trying to make the USA U23 team, Oguagha started training more seriously, earning a berth on the US World University Championships team in 2018, and capturing a bronze medal with the US women's eight at the WUCs. Oguagha is now an aspiring senior team rower, and recently pulled a 6:36. row2k caught up with Oguagha to talk about her path from walk-on to international rowing, her experience as a Black athlete in rowing, and her long-term goals in the sport.

row2k: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk with me today. How did you get your start in rowing?

Oguagha: I didn't participate in many sports when I was younger. I thought I would be a soccer player, after watching the World Cup in 2010, and because soccer is the leading sport in Nigeria. When I first came to Rutgers, I was interested in soccer and I joined the club soccer team.

I saw the crew flyers around campus, and when I first went to the walk-on meeting, the coach said 'This is a full time vasity sport. We train 6 days a week. It is not like you can to it a couple of times a week to be a hundred percent dedicated.' I decided I didn't want to do that because I wanted to focus more of my time on soccer, so I declined.

However, I saved the novice coach's number and contacted her about a month later. I told her I wanted to come back and try rowing, so she gave me another chance and I joined the team during finals week in the fall semester of my freshman year. That is the first time I ever erged; it was in the beginning of winter training. It was a very relaxed environment at the time; I was erging with only the athletes as the captains were running captain's practices during finals. My teammates told me if I liked it then, I would like it when I was rowing on the water. I was invited to my first winter training trip to Florida, and that was when I was pulled into rowing.

row2k: Was it just the experience of being in the team or being in the boats for the first time? Or what flicked the switch?

Oguagha: I had never been part of a big team sport, so being around a team who all had a passion for rowing, it is easy to be all in when everyone around you is loving it. Also, traveling to Florida, being out on the water and the scenery.

I don't think I can pinpoint a certain thing that really made me want to row. I think it was just the dynamic of being with other people. Doing something I never did before and having a positive outlook on it is what sold me into rowing. I think this is also part of my personality; I like to see the work I put in directly producing results. I love calculating the numbers on the screen on the erg. I love seeing my improvements on the water and on the erg. I think being able to see yourself constantly improve is very rewarding.

row2k: In terms of your experience as a walk on versus the experience of say someone who rowed in high school or was a recruited athlete, how was that similar or different? Was that something that registered like, 'I'm starting at this a little bit later than some of these people, so I have to work harder,' or did that not register for you at all?

Oguagha: In my novice year, I think that did not register very much for me. There were a couple of people who rowed for a short time prior to rowing at Rutgers, but were predominantly all novices on our team. And we were a pretty balanced, strong group who were very competitive, at least erg-wise, with the varsity team.

I was very scared when it came to racing and when we went to higher rates. There were times I broke down because I felt like I couldn't keep up with the other novices. As time went on and I progressed further along in my career, I realized that my endurance was my biggest weakness since I didn't participate in sports much in my life. I could have a fast 2k but my 6k would not be as fast, or I would not do as well on longer work outs.

I think that's been one of my biggest struggles, my fitness, but I would continually work and would see myself progress and see how that benefitted my other tests and other workouts.

row2k: You made steady progress throughout your career, and by your senior year, you were in the varsity eight. Was it for you a matter of making incremental improvements?

Oguagha: I was focused on making sure my erg times were faster every year. That was the goal for me. I think, for me being new to the sport, I always believed that it would take time to get better. To get my technique better, to make sure that I was more self-aware, and to be more dedicated to training. Focusing on what I was eating. Am I getting enough sleep? Balancing my social life and my academic life, I think that played a factor in my improvement on the water and erg training as well.

row2k: Staying with your experience of college rowing for a moment, between the pandemic and the activism and movement that came out of the murder of George Floyd a few weeks ago, there has been a lot of discussion in rowing about these topics. One thing that is happening is that athletes who are minorities or people of color are being vocal about how their experience in rowing, which is a predominantly white sport, is different, and can occasionally be quite negative.

Something that really struck me over the last few weeks was a tweet from Philadelphia City Rowing, where an alumna from Philadelphia City Rowing compared her rowing on her high school team with her rowing in college, which was heartbreaking.

This is a quote from Kai Burton, who rowed at Philadelphia City Rowing in high school. She says, "my high school team was incredible. Those women are my heart. Whenever we race the regattas were a sea of white, but my boat was safe. We went fast and we had so much fun. It was such a blessing that for four years, I was able to row on a team with Black and brown women. That is far from the norm in the rowing world. I was not prepared for how exhausting college rowing would be once the team I was on reflected the reality of how white rowing is. It didn't sit right with my spirit. So I quit."

Leaving aside the outcome and the young lady's choice to stop rowing, what was your experience like in a sport and on a team that was and is predominantly white?

Oguagha: When I first started rowing, I did notice that the team was predominantly white, but I wouldn't say that was the first thing I noticed as my first experience with rowing. I didn't consider race when I first walked onto the team. It's not like anyone was ever racist, put me down, or never said something that negatively impacted me. But there is a difference in lifestyle for me and a majority of my teammates.

Some examples include a difference in the hair products we use, how we style our hair, the traditional food I enjoy versus what my other teammates enjoy, and the music we like to listen to. Because I was a minority on the team, I did not have as many people I could talk to who could relate to those parts of me.

row2k: It seems like overall you had a very positive experience at Rutgers. Were there ever any times where it seemed it might not work out for you?

Oguagha: I think overall it was very good experience. There were difficult times; rowing is a tough sport mentally. It's a tough mental sport. There are definitely times where you feel like, 'maybe I can't do this anymore. Maybe I cannot handle this and school anymore.'

row2k: This is a very active conversation right now within the rowing world as the rowing world reflects on its privilege, and its obligations to be inclusive and diverse. And I think the question that's on a lot of people's minds, which maybe isn't always welcomed by people of color, is 'what can be done?' How can we support those athletes that aren't necessarily in the mainstream or the stereotype of what rowers look like to have the kind of experience that you had?

Oguagha: I think it's important to be very understanding. To become aware of differences amongst athletes when they start talking about their race. I think it's important to understand that not everyone had the same life experience. Sometimes there are some athletes may need to talk about problems such as 'I don't have food to eat,' or 'I can't afford to get myself from Point A to Point B.' I think it's important to be aware that this is something that people struggle with. I think that's a good step. For me, I was fortunate that I could go to college, a four-year college that has rowing. But not everyone has the opportunity to go, to be able to afford four years of college. Community colleges don't have rowing.

Oguagha races at Rutgers
Oguagha races at Rutgers

I think it's important to make children aware of what rowing is, and the places where it's not available at least teach the kids about the opportunity that they have to be able to participate in a water sport. You need to be able to afford equipment and all the other dues that come with it as well. I think where it is available, it would be helpful to be able to provide scholarships for students who want to be able to row and give them opportunities as well.

I think also if you want to promote diversity, if you want to include more people who are Black or other minorities into the sport, you have to make them welcome on the team. You want them to know that no matter what they look like, if they row fast, as long as they can move the boat, they have a place. To make them feel at home and to be able to freely express themselves without being singled out. I think also to promote or showcase other athletes who are successful and who are Black, as well as other minorities as well. It's important to see a role model who looks like you in your sport.

I think that's what attracts a lot of people. Once they see someone who they admire, they appreciate them for their strength or their courage or their ability to overcome adversity. They see that as a positive role model that sparks an idea that they can do something that this person did, because they already saw it can done.

There's an analogy that my coach likes to use about breaking the four-minute mile. Once Roger Bannister broke it, others heard about it and more and more people starting breaking the four-minute mile. Once you see someone do something, you believe that you can do it. I feel like in that way, people of color can see other people of color doing great things which they then believe they can also do achieve. It's hard to answer that question because there are a lot of factors that tie into it.

row2k: I want to key on something that you just said. As I was preparing for this interview I had a little bit of indecision about asking about something that you just mentioned, which is this idea of becoming a role model. It seems like in a lot of sports journalism, when you have a minority or a Black athlete succeeding in a sport that's not traditionally known to be a Black sport, that this question of 'do you see yourself as a role model?' seems to come up, and as a journalist, I understand the impulse for that question. As a former athlete though, I sometimes roll my eyes and say, 'oh my God, why are you asking me that question? I'm trying to succeed in a really difficult sport, and now I need to be a role model on top of that?'

So, I had a lot of trepidation about asking that question because it seems like it could be tone deaf or clueless at best, or condescending at the very worst. What is your feeling about that?

Oguagha: I think because, I am a great athlete, and I have the platform that I have and I'm doing the things that I do. I don't believe it takes away from my accomplishments in rowing. I think because I accomplished so much, that's why I have the opportunity to become a role model. I don't take offense to it or feel the pressure of being a role model. I don't think I've even thought about being a role model until recently. Especially last summer when I was told that people look up to me as a Black athlete, and that it is important that more and more people see me where I am. That's when I realized it's not just about me striving to win a gold medal at the Olympics. It's also about me showing people the way, that they can do what I did.

I was very grateful to be able to do what I do. I think also, like I said, people do need to see people who look like them be successful and accomplishing great things. I don't feel pressured by it that much, but rather I'm grateful that I can be a role model.

row2k: As you've watched both the events of the past few months and the discussion in the rowing world unfold, what were your thoughts or what was your reaction?

Oguagha: I think in part because of COVID-19 everyone is staying inside, so this is already a time of reflection for everyone in the world to think about what's important in life. What do they stand for? What are their ideals? What do they think about? What are some prejudices they may have that they don't know they have, whether consciously or subconsciously? And I think that George Floyd really sparked another revolution and that people are taking it more seriously this time, and I hope that this leads to permanent change as well.

I'm sure you know there are a lot of protests toward USRowing recently, because there was a delayed response about the death of George Floyd, and how that impacts the Black community, and you kind of sense that they're uncomfortable talking about it. So for me personally, because I want to represent the United States in the Olympics, that concerns me. I want to represent my country and the governing organization that is supposed to help me achieve that dream is hesitant to speak up about something that directly affect me.

I have been contemplating a lot. I've been very sad. What's happening is very upsetting. But also I think this has empowered more people to speak up at this time, which I appreciate. That it's making more people reflect on what their values are. It's sad that it's been going on for hundreds of years. And it is sad that there is a much greater focus on it now, but I'd rather it be now than never.

row2k: It's in many ways terrible at the larger level of society in general, but also at the level of rowing, that it takes a series of violent deaths for this to even become a conversation. Now that the conversation has started, what can rowing and rowing people do in order to keep it active?

Oguagha: I think you need to continue to push yourself out of your comfort zone. You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone in order to really reap the benefits. Just like you can't expect yourself to be race ready on race day if you don't practice racing before race day, you can't expect to yourself to be a better teammate or coach without pushing yourself out of your comfort zone on a continuous basis. That's where you truly improve.

It's going to be hard. You can't think of it as if you are going to solve the problem in one day. You have to think of it as making little improvements daily. You may not see the end of racism in your lifetime. At least you are sure that the next generation will be able to reap the result of your impact. I think it's part of a legacy of you just trying to make things better, it will manifest with time. And people will see the stark contrast. Now, that's already a big step and that's thoroughly appreciated.

row2k: I think that's a very wise answer. Pivoting back to the main reason for our conversation, which is your athletic achievements and your athletic goals, can you describe your path from finishing up at Rutgers making the decision to want to go on to the next level of rowing? How did you make that decision that you wanted to be successful on the next, bigger stage?

Oguagha: After I did U23 in 2017 and I didn't make the team, I realized that I didn't want to stop training. I knew I didn't reach my full potential. I decided to continue training and I was fortunate to be able to still train at Rutgers. I think it's the little steps. Three years ago, I didn't know what it would look like to train now, and to be able to say that I want to make the Olympic team. I think it's just a series of small steps, small sacrifices, and being focused on my goal is what led me to where I am today. Also the support I get from my coaches, my teammates, my family and friends all along the way. That's what helps me stay focused on the goal.

Oguagha and W8+ teammates on the podium at the World University Games
Oguagha and W8+ teammates on the podium at the World University Games

row2k: What's your current training situation like?

Oguagha: I'm currently training at Rutgers with the team. Well, currently I am at home training on an erg.

row2k: To a certain extent, we all are.

Oguagha: Yeah. I was fortunate that toward the end of my college career that I was able to come back and train at Rutgers, so now I am training alongside the Rutgers team. I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue where I left off and to make more improvements, rather than trying to figure out how to do it on my own. I definitely want to make myself the best I can be.

row2k: Justin [Price, RU women's coach, eds.] let on about your recent 2k score of 6:36. That's seriously legit. Did you think that you had that potential?

Oguagha: Probably not until about two years ago. I broke the RU school record as a senior, but I didn't even care about the school record until I realized I could break it my junior year. I remember hearing that going 6:40's on the erg is elite so I tried to meet that goal. I thought if I could do that, then I would be elite. Once I did that I decided to raise the bar a little higher. I think once you achieve one thing you think, 'hmm, what if I could do this?' So I think now that I've gotten to 6:36 on the erg, I could strive to go sub-6:30 or even break the world record. I think it's a gradual process, it's not something I thought I could do until I did it.

row2k: From our conversation, it sounds like you're someone who has always, I don't want to say enjoyed, but liked erging.

Oguagha: Yeah, I think especially after college when I couldn't row on the water as much anymore, I was rowing either in single or, if it was too cold out, I was spending a lot of time on the erg. . I transitioned to doing a lot of steady state on the erg and I'm good at making playlists. I like it. To me it is very soothing and it gives me time to meditate.

row2k: With the pandemic this year and the Olympics being postponed, and the racing calendar and selection being very much scrambled for everyone, do you know what your next steps to realizing your Olympic goals will be?

Oguagha: I am focusing on what I can control. I'm working on improving myself with what I have and getting fitter, to make sure that I can make any boat I'm in go fast.

row2k: So now, with everything on hold, some athletes have taken the time, as you said earlier, to really go inward. For some other athletes, maybe like yourself, who are just starting out they're using this time to really focus, intensely inwardly, dream big and, and decide what they want their next steps to be. Have you found yourself in that mode of thinking as well?

Oguagha: I'm staying focused. There are a lot of ways you can pull your mind to think about, well, what are my competitors doing? How are they comparing? What do I need to do to be the best? Who's going to be faster than me? I think, while it's important to consider, it can be distracting. It can make you not focus on the goal. I think the best way for me to prepare is to make sure I do the work I need to do every day. To hold myself to my own standards and not to raise my bar or lower my bar based on what someone else is doing. I think it's really important for me to stay focused on what I can do that will very beneficial for me rather than focus on what someone else is doing. Almost like applying for job and trying to find ways to make my application stand in a way the employer can't say no. I'm focused on how am I going to make myself the best person. The best athlete that I can be.

row2k: Your long term goal is to make the US Olympic team in rowing?

Oguagha: Yes.

row2k: That's a very clear answer.

Oguagha: Yes. This definitely is my goal. I say yes, but there's definitely a lot of weight behind the word yes. It's more than just saying yes, I'm going to do it. It's a very tough journey. You have to make a lot of sacrifices to do that, and I still don't know what that entails. So I take small steps at a time.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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