Hannah Babalola

I was born as a normal child but when I was seven, I wanted to ease myself at night and I discovered that I could not move any longer. So I started shouting. My father was not at home but my step-mother was. I was the only daughter then and I had a personal room. So everybody ran out and came to meet me. I told them my story and my brother tried to help me stand up. He tried three times but I couldn’t stand up. That was how I had the disability.
Were you able to cope initially?
Because I was very young, I couldn’t go to school for some years because of my condition but my dad was a very caring man. I was always indoors and I started to have my hair cut because I couldn’t walk to salon any longer to plait my hair. When I go out, people keep asking, ‘What happened to you?’ Even when I gained admission back to school, I found it very difficult to cope because a lot of people didn’t want to come near me. They thought my paralysed legs might transfer to them. So, I faced issues of self-esteem. I could not associate with my play group but later, I got used to it as I grew up and it stopped bothering me. When you have a disability, the more you are exposed, the better you become. For example, my legs were initially paralysed. I couldn’t carry them, someone had to carry me to the toilet, hold me on the closet before I could do whatever I wanted to do. I couldn’t sit. Everything I did was with my hands. I couldn’t stand to bath. But later on, I was taken to hospitals and churches and my condition started improving and I was able to manage to move the legs gradually till I started doing sports. Sports really helped me a lot. When I started doing exercises, I began to do a lot of things I couldn’t do before. Before, I couldn’t trek 100m; by the time I managed to walk 50m, my legs will be shaking and I will fall. But when I started doing exercises like sit-ups, I became strong; I could walk, I could move. But I just saw sports as fun initially, a sort of an avenue for me to go out because I was always indoors.
How has life been as a sportswoman?
It was not easy initially when I turned to sports in 2004. After my secondary school education, I opened a shop where I sold phone accessories in Ibadan. A man owed me some money and I decided to go to his house and collet my money, so I could buy more goods. On my way, I met a man, coach Pius, and he asked if I was into sports. I thought he was talking about exercises because I didn’t know that there was anything like sports for people with disabilities. My dad used to tell me that when he would be financially okay, he would send me abroad for my legs to be operated and I would walk again. It was just to make me happy. So, I told the coach I was not interested in sports because my dad had promised to take me out of the country and I would walk again. He tried to convince me but I didn’t know he traced me to where I was going. He collected my contact and he started calling. One day, I decided to go to Liberty Stadium, Ibadan. When I got there, I was shocked to see people with disabilities training. I was touched. I fell in love wheelchair race but the man that introduced me to sports was involved in powerlifting. Oyo State didn’t have the wheelchairs for the race because it was not everywhere in Nigeria. That’s how I got encouraged and started doing sports.
What were the challenges you faced when you started sports?
My mum didnt support me but my father did. My elder brother said sports people will use and dump me. He advised me to do something that will help me in future. I almost ruined my business because I I started using my business money for sports but there was no profit forthcoming. My shop was almost down. I was doing well in powerlifting but I didn’t like the game. People said I was doing well but I was not satisfied. The game after my heart was wheelchair race. After a while, Plateau, Abuja, Abia and Delta came for me to compete for them.
When did your breakthrough come?
It was in 2011 after I had trained for more than six years. When I was employed by Abia State, my coach used to tell me that if you are a sportaman and you haven’t put on Nigeria’s colours, you are not doing sports. So, I told myself I needed to do extra training to get to the top. I went to Ogun State with the hope of representing Nigeria at the 2011 All Africa Games in the powerlifting event. But after much training, my coach told me powerlifting had been removed from the events for the games. So, all the efforts and resources I put in came to nothing. Then I was lifting 105kg. I came to Lagos to stay with my aunty, Mrs. Udeme Nfomobong and her husband. While there, a friend took me to a coach popularly called Black Moses. He said I could do wheelchair race. There was a race in Ibadan and I came second because I didn’t have experience. In April (2011), I went for AAG trials and I came third. Because I have so much strength in my hands, I was angry with myself because I knew I could have done better. They invited the best four and I was among. At the National Sports Festival in Port Harcourt, I won gold and silver in the 200m and 100m respectively. That was how I went to the AAG in Maputo and I started beating the girls ahead of me. People ask me how I rose so fast and I tell them that I do extraordinary work apart from what the coaches teach me. If there are no tournaments, I don’t sleep. I do light exercises to keep fit. If I stay out of training, I feel sick. So, sports is now a part of me.
How did you feel wearing Nigeria’s colours at the AAG in Maputo?
When we did the trials in Ibadan, a lot of people were very happy to make the team but I was not. It was only when we got to Abuja and they started distributing our kits and they gave me mine, that I became happy. I remembered what my coach told me. So, I carried my kits and started shouting, ‘Team Nigeria.’ Everyone was looking at me. And I told them what my coach told me. That was a very happy day for me. I had always wanted to represent my country internationally.
You had planned to make the Commonwealth Games team but you didn’t …
It was very painful. After the AAG, everybody said I did well even though I came fourth. The racing chair the previous Nigerian champion was using was the latest and that was what she used in winning a silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. But it became faulty and she could no longer use it. She used to have an edge over us because our chairs were outdated. So, we were now on the same level because we were using the same chairs. We told them to get us better racing chairs but they didn’t. I went for Paralympic trials in Dubai and we made Standard B. They said our ranking was so low. I was ranked 35 but I should have been in top 10 to be sure of a medal because you need to run different heats before you can reach the final. They also promised us chairs for the Glasgow games but we didn’t see anything. I am a sprinter but I started training for 1500m, a very difficult race. It’s not 100m where you run and relax. In Dubai, I was number four among Commonwealth countries, even with my bad racing chair. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get us the racing chairs and they dropped us and went to the Commonwealth Games. I spoke to a man, Mr. Biodun Balogun, who is involved in freight services. He gave me $1000 to help buy the racing chair and The Christ Ministry gave me a link to the MTN Foundation and they promised me but I haven’t heard from them yet. The Christ Ministry pay me an allowance monthly that they don’t want me to disclose. I am grateful to them for their support because