Growing up in my house during Olympic season was a time for geography lesson; a time when we identified different countries by their flags and location on the map. However, one constant character you can always count on to represent Nigeria is Mary Onyali-Omagbemi, popularly called “the Queen of Nigerian and African sprints”. Onyali still holds the Nigerian record in the 200 meters and is still ranked in the top 10 Collegiate All-time list in both the 100 meters and 200 meters. She has established several prestigious records including the first Nigerian to compete in five Olympic tournaments over a 20 year span.
Ironically, track and field was never a priority during Onyali’s early years growing up in Nigeria. Her father passed away when she was very young, which left her mother to raise her and her younger siblings (a sister and two brothers). The eldest of four children, Onyali took on the responsibility of caring for her younger siblings. Customarily with most Nigerian parents, her mother encouraged her to focus on her academics and emphasized sports as an extra-curricular activity. Luckily, Mary attended an elementary school where sports were part of the curriculum and took the opportunity to participate in all possible sporting activities, which she continued through high school. As much as she loved competing, Mary enjoyed winning even more. On some occasions she was denied approval to competitions that she was well qualified for either on the basis of her age and/or lack of experience.
Despite such setbacks, Mary received a scholarship in 1985 to attend Texas Southern University where she went on to become a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion.
1986 will be remembered as the year Onyali had her first international meet at the inaugural World Junior Championships in Athletics held in Athens, Greece. Onyali will go on to win a silver medal in the 200m coming in second to another Nigerian sprinter, Falilat Ogunkoya. She would also win a bronze medal in the 4×100m relay. Her biggest Olympic moment came at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia when she ran an outstanding time of 22.38 in the 200m which was good enough for a bronze medal.
In 2005, Onyali launched her athletic clothing line “Yali Yali”, an eco-friendly brand that utilizes a unique material suitable for the tropical Nigerian climate. Today, she serves as the Special Adviser to the Director General of the National Sports Commission (NSC) in Nigeria.
- 7 Individual Medals (6 Gold, 1 Bronze) at The African Games (1987, 1991, 1995, 2003)
- 4 Relay (4x100m) Gold Medals at The African Games (1987, 1991, 1995, 2003)
- 2 Individual Medals (1 Gold, 1 Silver) at The Commonwealth (1994)
- 5 Olympic Appearances – 2nd Most in Nigeria
- 2 Bronze Olympic Medals (4 x 100m relay and 200m)
Onyali has made Nigerians proud in the athletic sphere. In 1987 when most women in Nigeria focused on being “wives”, she re-calibrated the expectations of a Nigerian woman in sports by competing and dominating the Africa’s track and field scene for almost two decades. As a result of her success and accomplishments, more Nigerians participated in track and field events. She continues to serve as a source of motivation and inspiration to younger athletes across the continent of Africa.