Paul Kehinde (MON) is a Commonwealth and Olympics record holder. Twice he broke the world record in the +65kg powerlifting event of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games; he was one of those special athletes that put smile on the faces of Nigerians at the last Games after able-bodied athletes had earlier failed to sparkle at the Olympics. AJIBADE OLUSESAN caught up with the star at the event organised by Obafemi Martins Foundation in Lagos and he shared his experience on how he rose from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of his career
Nigeria football legend Obafemi Martins, through his foundation, donated equipment to special athletes like you, you guys will definitely be encouraged by this gesture…
Obafemi Martins has really made us proud, we are happy that he has recognised us this way. We are encouraged by what he has done. I want to plead with all those who are wealthy to come to our rescue like Obafemi has done, they should emulate the soccer legend because I believe we have a lot of Nigerians out there who can help.
Special athletes are not doing well at all, like myself, I am a Paralympian, a world record holder; there is nothing I can show as my achievement in terms of material things.
I am sad about this and it is enough to get someone worried about representing this country but what Obafemi has done for us has once again encouraged me that even if government does not recognise me, I can still be appreciated by people out there who know what special athletes are facing.
You seem to be unhappy with Nigerian government?
The government does not recognise us or what the special athletes have done for this country. For instance, previous presidents did a little in the past by recognising us, but the present government has not even deemed it fit to call us to a reception after our performance at the last Rio Paralympics. No one has told us that this is what the Nigerian government has for us in terms of reward, it is very sad and discouraging.
We know what our counterparts in other countries enjoy; even those that did not win any medals have been rewarded by their governments. We seem to be nothing to those in power, they know that many of us are not doing anything, my life is not significantly different from when I was not a Paralympian or Commonwealth and world record holder, and it is so painful.
Despite this neglect, you guys still do better than other Nigerians who are not physically challenged in major tournaments?
I didn’t allow all of those things happening to us to affect my performance because I believe that if there is no money today, it will come tomorrow. I know that if I work hard and realise my dream, despite the challenges, I know that if government does not appreciate me, people that value us will come to my rescue like Obafemi has done for me and my people.
Apart from money what exactly do you guys want?
We need accommodation; we need jobs so that we can be earning salaries, there are so many things we need because of our situation but accommodation is very important. Like these wheelchairs and crutches that Obafemi gave us will help us to move from one place to another instead of getting stuck in a place without help.
But some of you are employed by some states….
Many of us are not employed; just a few are under the employment of some states. Those who have jobs are paid peanuts, many of them cannot even afford house rent, I can tell you that so many of us are staying inside the stadium here.
Are you really saying some of your colleagues are living in the National Stadium, Lagos?
I still thank God that I am not staying at the stadium; I have my own apartment somewhere in Ogun State. But many of us that we are training together are actually sleeping in the stadium.
It must be very tough for you guys to survive?
We are living from hand to mouth. Before you go to a competition you would have owed so many people because you will need money to come to training, to eat and do some other things, you can’t be training on empty stomach.
It is hard to convince young athletes to come to the stadium and train, I have a lot of headache encouraging these young lads because they don’t have money.
One of them came to me a while ago to tell me that he had no money to eat and he had been training,I had to give him words of encouragement not to give up, that it had happened to me before, that the sufferings he is going through would end one day.
How did you get into the sport?
Somebody brought me to Coach Aare Feyisetan who has helped me develop my talent. This is what I have been doing since I was a young lad, I used to lift weight in my neighbourhood in Ketu, Lagos State, back then until I met Coach Aare in 2005 and by 2006 I attended National Sports Festival, Gateway Games, I went to my first international competition in 2011, the event was held in Dubai (United Arab Emirates) where I won my first international medal, it was a silver and since then I have been the champion of my class.
You must have been popular in your neighbourhood in Ketu as a physically challenged person lifting weight back then?
Of course yes, I was popular in that area before Coach Kehinde Adeyato brought me to Coach Aare. It was easy for me to breakthrough on time because this is what I loved to do right from my childhood, it is my passion.
I was really a local champion because people would come to my house to beg me to compete somewhere and they would even place a bet on me, and I was challenging people who were not disabled and I was beating them, I was really the only physically challenged person lifting weight around my area.
Were your parents not worried that as a physically challenged child, you could get hurt by lifting weight?
My mum did not like the idea of me lifting weight because she believed I could fall ill because of that. She actually wanted me to go to school and I was still nursing that ambition before she died, I got discouraged after her death because there was no money for me to go to school.
My mum really did not like it when I was lifting weight around my neighbourhood but she changed her mind when Coach Adetayo introduced me to coach Aare and she saw what I was doing, she got encouraged and she was even giving me money to come to the stadium. I am sad today that she died early, and was unable to reap the fruit of her labour.
When was that time you felt ‘oh how I wish I am complete’?
A lot of times, but challenges come at different times even to those who are complete. For instance, when I was growing up I used to feel bad twhen I was going to somewhere with my friends, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with their pace.
I would be the last, there are places they would go and wouldn’t allow me to follow them because they felt that Paul is physically-challenged. The one that pained me most that I cried was when a girl I wanted to get married to took me to her parents, and I was shocked when they told me point blank that their daughter couldn’t marry me, they said instead of their child to get married to me she would rather remain single, It was so tough for me to accept that.
But you are married now…
Yes, I am married; in fact I got married about three weeks ago.
Can you tell Nigerians about your wife?
Well, I met her normally and walked up to her that I wanted be a friend, we started from there, we were chatting, getting in touch regularly and at the end of the day we felt we were meant for each other because the feeling started developing. I discovered that she is so caring and romantic too.
Are you romantic?
Of course I am so romantic, you can ask my wife; despite the fact that I am physically challenged, I am still caring, she had no choice but to accept me because of what she saw in me.
But can you also do for her those things people who are not physically challenged do for their spouses?
Why not? I only have challenges with my legs; not with my brain, leg or any other parts of my body. I can talk to her, be romantic, to let her feel that the person beside her loves her so much.
Did her family easily accept you?
Yes, they accepted me at once when I met them. They welcomed me; I was thrilled by the honour they gave me the first day they saw me. I doubt it if they could have given me more honour even if I was an able body person.
You broke two world records at the last Paralympics, how did you do it?
I was so sure I was going to do it because at the last Commonwealth Games, I broke the record in my category. I had been aiming to break the record since 2013, I had tried to do that in the international competitions, I actually targeted the last All Africa Games but we did not train well because of the challenges that we had at the time but I still broke the African record.
But I trained a lot ahead of the last Paralympics, in fact, I was pushing 237kg during training and the world record was 217kg and it was easy for me to break the record when the time came. I am not going to stop because at the world championship next year, I will break my own record and set a new world record.
Special athletes have done well, you would want to plead with the authorities to focus more on you guys?
Yes, I plead with the government to invest more in special athletes, because if you look at it, we win more medals for the country, we are the ones that don’t let the nation’s investment in sports go in vain.
I want them to believe more in the special athletes, there is no competition that we go and not pick medals, we are number one in the world, so we need more encouragement.