Mary Onyali aka the “African Sprint Queen” is a woman you should get to know. Over two decades ago, when the social norm for a female in Nigeria was everything but being an athlete, Onyali went against the norm getting involved in the sport of track and field and continuing on to compete for Nigeria and Africa, on a national and international level. Since her entrance into the world of track and field, Onyali has opened the door for many women as well as amassed numerous medals along the way: Commonwealth Games medals, three World Cup medals, four African Games gold medals and two Olympic bronze medals, are just a few of her achievements. Living by what she calls her “three D’s/ core principles” [discipline, dedication and determination], Onyali now embraces a new and frankly speaking daunting task, manufacturing and distributing the first ever sports apparel wear in Nigeria.
Her goal is simple. Like their Western counterparts who have the opportunities to wear sports apparel as early as kindergarten, without much thought, African children should have the same opportunities. She is driven by years of watching children in kindergarten and even African professional athletes perform in over-worn clothes and shoes, or a lot of times, no shoes. “If you go to the National Stadium in Lagos [Nigeria], you will see sports men and women running in their slippers,” says Onyali. For Onyali that is a “very very sad thing.” Ladybrille caught up with Onyali in the States a day before her trip to Nigeria. Read on as she shares her life as a Track and Field Athlete and her venture into apparel sports manufacturing with her apparel sports brand, Yali-Yali.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: A lot of people know about you but I am not so sure the younger generation do. Could you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into track and field?
Onyali: [laughs] Well as you know, I am not a spring chicken [gives a hearty laughter]. It has been a long but very very rewarding [journey]. As early as six years old, just playing with the neighborhood kids doing what we in Nigeria call “touch relay” [Flag Football in the States] where you tag someone and run back and see who gets back to home base the fastest, whenever that game came up, I always won. [Laughs]. Whenever we wanted to play that game, everyone wanted me to be on their team because they knew I would win. It gave me so much joy doing that knowing I would win. I [would] even get a couple of pats on the back and a few candies and cookies. I was happy! The interest started from there and grew from there.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [Laughs]. Your legs look so long and like you run fast but how tall are you?
Onyali: [Laughs] Yes. That’s exactly right. They call me beautiful legs at times. My legs are longer than my upper body. When I run my legs kind of extend a little bit more.[laughs]. I am 5ft 6in.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [Chuckles] That’s wonderful! Tell me the challenges African athletes, especially those in track and field, face.
Onyali: I have always relied on these three principles. I call it my three Ds: Discipline, Determination and Dedication. [ I] lived, breathed and slept the three Ds. Everything I did, I did around my three Ds. Even till today, those are my core principles. Anytime I am deviating from my three Ds, I have to get myself back on track because without the discipline, determination and dedication, nobody can accomplish anything in the world. Anything in life is challenging. But sports, in general, to compete on the level I did, you have to have serious amount of dedication, discipline and determination.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I understand your mom was not too excited about you getting into track and field because she wanted you to focus on academics and it is not something a woman typically does. Share with us a little about that?
Onyali: Of course most parents want their children to be [d]octors, lawyers or architects. When I was going to school and competing for my school, my mom was like “No! you need to focus on your studies. I don’t know this running thing you are doing. What is it going to fetch you?” I just couldn’t find joy in anything else. My academics were good. I wasn’t getting A’s. But my C’s and B’s were good enough for me.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [laughs on the B’s and C’s being good enough for her]
Onyali: [laughs] My mom did not want to entertain anything relating to me pursuing track professionally. She [later] calmed down after she saw all the goodies I would bring home from track meets. She saw it was not affecting my academics and so she kind of relaxed.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: hmmm . . . Now you’ve gone and competed for Nigeria and Africa on such worldwide level it is ridiculous! Tell us the first time you got to compete for your country on an international level. What were you thinking? How were you feeling? The first time is always the sweetest, they say?
Onyali: My very first was competing in Ghana but I don’t know whether I should call Ghana international. [I] guess it is because it is another country. They are so close to us it’s hard to see [them] as international. But, that was my first competition. I was not allowed to compete in the individual race. I was too young. I went into the Senior team as a Junior.
So, the senior athletes have competed in Olympics and ventured out of the country. This was my first time venturing out of the country. I was the fastest in 100 and 200 meters. The jealousy and anger that followed me! The envy was just so much. But, I was so young and naïve and I didn’t even notice. All I wanted to hear was the sound of the gun and I am gone. But, they did not allow me compete. They put me in [r]elay races. We won but I was not happy. I felt that my opportunity to run at an individual race was taken away from me. But as according to the proverb my mom always used, “you cannot cover up pregnancy.”
LADYBRILLEmag.com: [laughs at the proverb] Na so o!, Na so o! [translated to mean “it’s true”] [laughs] Speak! Onyali: [laughs and continues] You cannot cover pregnancy so all the frustration they gave me coming into the senior team was fine so long as I was still competing. From Ghana we went to Egypt. I was able to compete in the individual race there. [I] freaked out, of course. It was expected because it was my first time competing on an individual level.
In relays, you feel comfortable in a relay race even if you mess up, someone is going to make it up. I panicked, I stepped on the starting block too hard [creating a false start]and was disqualified. My first one was a big disappointment. I cried my eyes out but hey, I got back up, went to the 200 meters and was second. So that made up for the 100 meter dissapointnent. But believe me, after that it never happened again.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I hear you. Because once you go through that, you are determined to beat it and never let it happen again.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You have accomplished so much and won [numerous] medals. Is there a point where it’s no longer a big deal anymore for you?
Onyali: [laughs] You got it right. It’s no longer a big deal. That is because of the kind of personality I am. I don’t dwell over anything. What I do is set a goal for myself. Once I accomplish it, I take a deep breath and say “okay that’s done. What’s next?” [Pauses] I live for challenges! I love challenges. If I get too comfortable in a particular area, I get bored. Some journalist from England tried to tally my medals five years before I retired. They came up with about 50.
LADYBRILLE.com: [in surprise tone] 50?
SPORTS APPAREL MANUFACTURING IN AFRICA
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Whoa! That is so impressive. I am in the company of a living legend! [laughs] Now, let’s talk about you loving challenges. Tell us about the challenge of trying to establish a sports apparel manufacturing company in Nigeria. I have not even heard of that. I think Yali-Yali will be the first to manufacture in Nigeria? Am I wrong?
Onyali: You are right.
LADYBRILLE.com: So, tell me a bit about what Yali-Yali stands for. Where did you get the name? I like it. It has a ring to it and is easy to remember.
Onyali: [laughs] Yea. That ring is what everybody is talking about. Those that know me know where the name comes from. It is the last four letters of my father’s name. Instead of one Yali, we thought it would be more fun to make it two Yalis and put a dash in the middle.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Ah! Nice. Onyali: 2004 Olympics in Greece that was my last major competition before I retired. I thought about it but I narrowed it down. I asked myself, what is it that I want to do where if I wake in the morning, I will just be happy to go to work. I know I can’t run anymore but I would rather do something that makes me happy, that is fulfilling and challenging as well and on top of it, why waste almost 25-30years of your life doing something else that you have no clues about? Do something you have experience in.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Do something you have experience in and love to do.
Onyali: Yes. on top of it, I love clothes and love fashion.
Onyali: I love clothes and I love shoes even more.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I know you love fashion I saw your pictures and your poses on your site.
Onyali: [laughs] I thought why not go into sports manufacturing apparel? I was into Nike, Reebok, Asics and retired with Adidas. So, I know what they feel like how they are suppose to fit on an athlete and when they do not fit and all that stuff.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: The texture, the silhouette.
Onyali: Yea, all that stuff. Plus, I am a Nigerian. I know what the climate is like [s]o I decided to pick an interest in sports wear and to make it even better, I know that Nigeria is a tropical rainforest so it is very hot. So, I tried to look for a material that can compete with the rest of the leading sports brand to suit the comfort of [N]igerians.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Hmmmmm . . . .
Onyali: We came up with a breathable fabric so that even if you sweat, it won’t stick and you won’t see the sweat lines on your shirt.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: So does this fabric include spandex, it is always included in sports wear?
Onyali: Yes spandex is always included in sports wear but it has a lot of UV rays so that when you sweat and the sun heats you, it bounces off your clothes and does not hit your skin directly. That way, my people will be comfortable and also it is affordable.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: You know what? Most designers always miss that point, especially when they are manufacturing and marketing to the African market. It has to be affordable. It has to.
Onyali: It has to. If not, they will tell you they’d rather go ahead and pay the millions for the Nikes and Adidas.
Onyali: It has been an uphill battle because technology, as you know, changes every minute and we have to keep up.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: True. So, with that kind of fabric and introducing it to the Nigerian market, are you then manufacturing over there and what has been the challenges?
Onyali: We are working closely with the Nigerian government. We have partnership with NEPAD, a government entity, and we are working closely with them to give us all the necessary assurance that whatever fabric or raw materials that we need to add to the Nigerian fabric will not be stopped. They will give us a waiver to cover [our] shipments and our factory is going to be in Calabar [Eastern part of Nigeria].
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Nice! That’s an amazing to place to do business without the big stress.
Onyali: Yes. It will be there because of the trade free zone. Free importation of anything you have so long as you belong to the zone. Nigeria as you know is a very very tough terrain but we will be covering a lot of grounds. When you decide to do business in Nigeria, you have to go at least 2-3years to learn the place before you get in there.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Exactly . . . because if you think you will just come in with your Oyinbo sabi [Western I know it all ways], you will be in a lot of trouble and lose a lot of money.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Puma, Nike, among many, are entering the African sports apparel market. How do you prepare for the competition that will inevitably penetrate the African market from these foreign global brands? Onyali: We did our research. We knew that as soon as we explode, the already established brands will come in to challenge us and push us out of the market.
Onyali: But guess what?
Onyali: I know Nigerians live for foreign goods but the system or tactic we will deploy is gonna make them . . . yes they can do business anywhere in the world. They can take their target wherever but I will still be able to accomplish my mission were any child in Nigeria who wants to play sports will be able to afford decent sports wear. If they will be able to bring their price as low as mine, manufacturing on the ground, then the playing field is fair but I don’t think they can beat it.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: I hear you. Well let’s wrap it up and talk about your beautiful family. You have one child and you married to a fellow athlete, a sprinter?
Onyali: Thank you. We just added another child who is eight months.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Congrats! You are one busy mommy. How is life as a mommy?
Onyali: Fun, fun, fun! I won’t change it.
LADYBRILLEmag.com: Congratulations. I am so happy for you. Please let us know about your progress and anyway we can let the world know about what you are doing, let us know.
Onyali: Thank you so much and thank you for the interview. Keep up the good work for Nigeria and Africa.
~Republished July 2nd, 2009
Founded in 2007, Ladybrille® Magazine is a California based pioneer digital publication demystifying the image of Africans in the west through contemporary African fashion and celebrating the brilliant woman in business and leadership, with an emphasis on the African woman in the diaspora. Our coverage includes stories on capital, access to markets, expertise, hiring and retention, sales, marketing, and promotions.