Eniola: The ‘Golden Girl’ destined to be great

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Bolaji Eniola Mariam broke into Nigeria’s consciousness when she stunned the more fancied Ukrainian Oksana Kozyna 18-21, 21-14, 21-18 in the SL3 category to win the first-ever gold medal by an African Para badminton player outside the continent at the Spanish Para badminton International Championship on Sunday 16th May 2021.

She had fought to come from one set down to become the eventual winner in her debut tournament.

From then on, she has become a great phenomenon in the world para badminton championships, both at home and away from home.

Her latest victory, triple gold at the 2024 Egypt International Para Badminton Championship is no doubt, a great achievement that stands as consolation to her early sacrifices in the sport.

Eniola beat Adriane Spinetti Avila of Brazil 2-0 (21-5, 21-6) to emerge Champion of the Women’s Singles SL3 at the 2024 Egypt International Para Badminton Championship, paired Chinyere Okoro to defeat Rosa Efomo De Marco (Italy) and Diana Lizeth Leon Sierra (Colombia) 2-1 (21-19, 16-21, 21-3) to win the Women’s Doubles SL3, and equally paired Chigozie Jeremiah to defeat Jagadesh Dilli and Rosa De Marco  2-0 (21-7, 21-10) in the Mixed Doubles SL3 event.

Born on the 21st of September 2005 in Ibadan, and brought up in Kwara state Nigeria, Eniola was discovered seven years ago and was coached by the late Coach Bello Oyebanji, who lost his life in preparation for the Spanish tournament which she won.

Her first interest was tennis but the late coach saw her potential in Para badminton.

Eniola’s story started when she was selected for the Nigerian Para badminton team as a junior player but due to lack of sponsorship, she was not exposed to tournaments.

In 2019, she attended the BCA Para badminton Athlete Workshop held in Abuja, Nigeria, and qualified for the BWF Female Participation Grant program which enabled her to attend her first-ever tournament. The BWF Para badminton female participation annual grant offers opportunities for female Para athletes to apply for financial support to attend and be internationally classified at several BWF sanctioned tournaments.

She dedicated the win in the Spanish championship to her late coach, Bello Oyebanji.

The President of the Badminton Federation of Nigeria Mr. Francis Orbih had said that, “Eniola’s win is very significant and exciting for the entire badminton family in Nigeria and Africa as a whole. It was a huge consolation to us all after the death of Bello Oyebanji”

“The win has put Nigeria and Africa on the badminton World map. With the win the future of Para-Badminton looks bright as we intend to build on Eniola’s history-making victory to create more awareness about Para-Badminton across Nigeria. Eniola has brought honor and pride to our entire continent and as we continue to dedicate the Gold Medal to the late coach Bello, I would like to appreciate the entire BCA management for their effort and dedication to the growth of Para-badminton in Africa.

Since the inception of Para badminton in Africa in 2017, as part of its strategic plan, the BCA in collaboration with the BWF and the AGITOS foundation (the development division of the International Paralympic Committee, IPC) has been actively engaged in developing the Para-sport in Africa by Organizing activities such as Player development camps, Coaches workshops, National Administrator’s Workshops, National Classifier Workshops, and Classification of new players to ensure Africa is fully represented at the debut of Para badminton at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

One such training was the one done in Nigeria in 2019 involving players and coaches where Eniola was discovered.

The BCA has endeavored to conduct Para badminton workshops and training camps every year in over 20 of their Member Associations. In 2018 the BCA collaborated with the BWF, AGITOS Foundation, and 5 African countries to host the first-ever Para-Badminton course in Africa. 12 Coaches from Cameroon, Congo DRC, Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda were trained.

Further to this success, in 2019, another course was organized by the BCA in Nigeria and 20 Coaches from Algeria, Benin, Cameroon, Central Africa, Congo DRC, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Kenya Ghana, Madagascar, Mozambique, Niger, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. A total of 31 players from these countries were also trained.

In a remarkable display of skill, determination, and sheer excellence, Eniola, Nigeria’s badminton sensation, emerged triumphant in the 5th Fazza Dubai Para Badminton International 2023, clinching the gold medal in the Women’s Singles SL3 category. Her outstanding performance not only secured victory for herself and Nigeria but resonated as a beacon of pride for the entire African continent.

Facing off against the world’s best and top-ranked players, Bolaji navigated through intense competition, reaching the pinnacle by defeating the world number one, Syakuroh Qonitah Ikhtiar from Indonesia, in a thrilling final that extended to three sets.

Enroute the final in the First Round of the championship, she beat Emoma Ivanovna from Bulgaria 21-10,21-8(2-0) to proceed to the Second Round where she succeeded in subduing Mandeep Kaur from India 21-16,21-17(2-0) to book her place to the quarter-final.

At the quarter-final, Eniola beat Manasi Joshi also from India 21-13, 21-11(2-0) to secure a berth in the Semi-Final of the category. There, she prevailed on Zuxian XIAO from China 21-13, 20-22, 21-15 (2-1) to book her place into the final.

This success recorded by Eniola has also qualified her for the Paralympics in Paris later this year.

In her reaction, Eniola expressed appreciation to the Federations for their support.

“I am very thankful to Badminton Confederation of Africa and the Badminton Federation of Nigeria who have supported me and sent me to Spain,” she re-acted after her victory.

In another exclusive interview with BCA TV after her historic win, Eniola shared her elation, expressing, “This victory is not only for me and Nigeria but for Africa as a whole. I am extremely proud to have achieved such a result by defeating the world number one. The journey continues, and I hope to maintain the same drive and motivation in my future tournaments which forms part of the Road to the Paris Paralympic Games 2024. I would like to thank the BCA and my federation for the trust”.

Eniola’s triumph in Dubai adds another glorious chapter to her stellar year, where earlier, she clinched gold in two major tournaments: the Uganda Para International 2023 and the Africa Para Championships 2023. Eniola specializes in the Women’s Singles SL3 category, showcasing her exceptional talent and dominance on the court.

As Eniola continues to make waves on the international stage, her success becomes a source of inspiration for aspiring athletes across Africa. Her commitment to excellence and perseverance exemplify the true spirit of a champion, and her journey promises to be one filled with more achievements and milestones.

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