Stella BIDA, in conversation with Simidele ADEAGBO, First African Woman Olympian in Skeleton, Obama Foundation Africa Leader, Strategic Business Consultant
Summarised conversation transcript
This is a summary version of the conversation. More details, stories, and amazing insights are mentioned in the video!
STELLA BIDA: Hi everyone, and welcome to the Conversations of Excellence. We will be spending the next minutes with a beautiful powerful woman, who has made history. She has made history at the winter Olympic games in 2018, and she has been the first ever African woman to compete in Skeleton at the Olympics. Simidele Adeagbo, welcome to the Conversations of excellence!
SIMIDELE ADEAGBO: Thank you so much for having me, it's an honor to be here and thank you for that wonderful and warm introduction. Really appreciate it!
STELLA BIDA: Is there anything that you want people who are listening to us to know about you, to start the conversation?
SIMIDELE ADEAGBO: You should know that in addition to me being an Olympic Skeleton racer, I am a sister, I'm a daughter, I'm a friend, I'm a traveler, I'm an adventurer and I'm a follower of Christ. Those are just a few ways to describe me outside of being an Olympian. That's what I want you to know about me as we start. Also, I was once a body double for Serena Williams!
STELLA BIDA: Great insight!
The day we met, you showed a video, I think it was a video around being first and being first lasting forever. It was so powerful, a very short clip. Why was the experience at the Olympics on being the first ever was so important to bring into your life?
SIMIDELE ADEAGBO: Being first is so much deeper than just a gold medal. That quest to the Olympics was more than just that. I think when people think about the Olympics, it's always about getting on that podium - which is great - and as an athlete, I always compete to the best of my ability and it's always the goal to strive for that.
But this particular journey was really rooted in purpose.
Skeleton was a sport that I didn't know anything about prior to a few months, before the Olympics.
I ended up being inspired to take part in the sport because I learned that no African or black woman had ever competed in the sport at the Olympic games.
I really saw an opportunity to really expand representation of the continent of Africa, which is very severely underrepresented at the winter Olympics. There were only seven countries at the 2018 winter games, that were from the continent of Africa. When you think about the size the continent of Africa and the population of just over a billion people, it’s disproportional to then how many people end up being there at the Olympics to represent an African country.
I thought that perhaps by breaking this barrier, I could help to address it.
Then also along with that is really changing the narrative in terms of what's possible from an athlete that looks like myself, coming from the continent of Africa, a black woman. Trying to transform that narrative in winter sports, and showing people what's possible, then through that bringing some positivity as well for the continent of Africa, showing people that excellence.
It really is all about highlighting the excellence that can comes from the continent of Africa.
That's how I ended up going headfirst down an ice track.
Like I said, being the first to be there was much more significant to me than any medal that I could have won.
STELLA BIDA: How do we make that decision, of going towards something where we actually don't have a 100% role model to represent where we're going and aspire to?
SIMIDELE ADEAGBO: As a leader, as a trailblazer, as someone who is first, you are not going to have that blueprint. That's something you have to be prepared for, that's something you have to face head on. You need to be open to building your own roadmap. That is the beauty of being first. You get to do it in a way that hasn't been done before.
The challenge with that is that it's easier to follow something that already exists, and just plug in. But when you're building on your own, you're facing so much that's unknown and it can be really scary.
What I've learned through my path is if you're just willing to put one step in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, and learn and just be brave enough to try, then eventually you're going to get to where you want to go.
Without a road map, it can be scary, but I would just encourage people to just take those steps, especially the first step. I think that's the most critical step. Because a lot of us don't even end up exploring because we are too afraid of the possibility that it won't work out.
My thought is to let go of the outcome, and just take the steps and see where that will take you. I think that for me was really - if I had to say, a secret to my success. I don't know if there's one secret - but particularly in my journey to the Olympics, I was really not concerned about the outcome as much as I was about the process.
I just focused on being present doing what I could in the moment, and taking one step at a time and eventually, I knew that the outcome would take care of itself. So just take that first step.
That's my advice to someone who doesn't have a blueprint or a roadmap. Just start building it.
STELLA BIDA: You talked about the scary aspects about starting the whole process. I am curious to know your perspective on sharing the scary sides of the processes we go through. Do you think that it is important to share about the scary aspects with others too?
SIMIDELE ADEAGBO: I think that not a lot of us share about the makings of our successes. I watched a few days ago a recent interview from Issa Rae. Watching her older interviews, I could see that things did not happen overnight. These old interviews made me realise that I actually learned a lot more about her by watching an interview from her 10 years ago, where she talked about some of the mistakes that she made, how she had to learn some of those hard lessons up front, while staying true to herself.
These lessons were more compelling. We often don't see that, especially in this digital age, where we're all scrolling on Instagram, and everybody looks like life is made and so instant.
My journey was almost an instant “microwavable” one, in the sense that it happened to be short and intense. But even within that, there were a lot of challenges.
I often don't get to talk enough about them, but I think there's definitely space to learn from that.
There were moments where I was second guessing, asking myself, what was I actually doing. There was one particular moment during my first week, when I decided to go to the world's scariest track to start with, which people don't usually recommend starting with, as it’s the most dangerous one. But I felt that for me, it was the right path, because I knew I was already on a shortened window. I thought that maybe, if I could tackle that scary track first, that would actually propel me further faster.
With that, came a lot of fear, because at this track, you're going at such higher speeds than any other track in the world. A few days into it, I actually made a huge mistake, and ended up going completely in the wrong direction, feet first down the track, instead of head first.
It was a moment that really shook me up, and a moment that made me question: “Why and what am I doing? Why am I doing this again?”. I could have lost my life. But through that, I think I learned that there's going to be a lot of moments like this, if this is what I'm going to choose to do.
With my sport, there's a steep learning curve, and you do have to make those type of mistakes to learn what not to do. So, in that moment I had to even deepen my commitment and say: “This is what I've signed up for, it is going to be scary, and I have to decide on how I'm going to cope with that fear”.
The way I ended up coping with the fear was realizing that I needed to focus on my bigger purpose, my bigger mission for doing it. If it became just about me, then it would be easy to just say: “I'm cold, I'm tired, this thing is scary”. But every time I went back to telling myself that what I’m doing is bigger than me, that anchored me and helped me continue to move forward.
There were many moments like that, but people don't often get to see that. They just remember you at the Olympics, performing for an audience of millions, and it looks “wow”, so inspiring and great. And it is! But know that there are peaks and valleys that came with that.
STELLA BIDA: At a moment you said that you anchored yourself on the fact that you're doing something which is bigger than yourself. I know that you spend a lot of time inspiring women and young girls. You even built some leadership programs to give them the core essence of leadership, to help them for their future. Why do you spend so much time doing that? What is the underlying reason you're doing that? What does it mean for you to have chosen that way of giving back?
SIMIDELE ADEAGBO: When I got back from the Olympics, I thought that I had an awesome and amazing experience. But what next? What do I do with this platform? What do I do with this opportunity to take some of these experiences and use it to further the continent, as I planned for in the first place?
For me, I felt that as African women, sometimes we don't get the love that we deserve in terms of the world really knowing our worth. I felt that if I could just go and pour into women on the continent, young women in particular, to help them be the best leaders, that they could be. That even if they are not athletes, or they don't want anything to do with the Olympics, but just helping to unlock the best within them, that would only help further in shaping the future of the continent.
For me, it just felt like a no-brainer, in a sense that it felt very natural to go and just mentor young ladies across the continent. I thought that if I could combine some of the things that I've learned along the way and invest that time, it would be the most important thing.
What I saw, as I was going across the continent and connecting with the young women that I mentor is that, sometimes people can feel so far away from people of influence.
Just knowing that somebody has invested that time in them, I can see that it really builds them up. I believe it's investment that has a high payoff, a high return. Through this, I think that it's only helping unlock their potential in so many ways, and hopefully sparks inspiration, and gives them ideas about what they might want to do.
Because they too can be first. Maybe not the first skeleton racer, but they can take time to think about what being first can mean for them. They can also think about how they want to break barriers in their own lives.
I think it is a very important message to share with them. It just means a lot to me to play whatever role that I can in helping to nurture the next generation of leaders, particularly female leaders on the continent of Africa.
STELLA BIDA: I see that you are preparing the future leaders of change to break barriers, showing them the possibilities available to them. What do you think are the skills required to drive change?
SIMIDELE ADEAGBO There's not one thing in particular that I think you can do, but there is a framework that I've used throughout my journey. When I look back, these are the pillars that help me drive change and these are things that I think we can all do. It actually ties back to that idea of being FIRST, each letter within that standing for a specific thing that all of us can do:
F, for Focus
To drive change it requires focus. You have to be clear. For me, as I started my journey, I was clear on why I wanted to be an Olympian. I wanted to do that in a way that was going to change the narrative of the continent of Africa, through winter sports. That's what's driving me, that's what I'm focusing on.
I, for Imagination
The "I" stands for imagination. To create change, you really have to have a wild imagination!
STELLA BIDA: I love that you’re saying that it has to be wild!
SIMIDELE ADEAGBO: Yes, it has to be wild, you have to be crazy enough to think that what you're going to focus on is actually possible. The imagination part comes from actually thinking about the ways to make it possible.
I think a lot of times we're in this environment where people tell us what we can't do. I think naturally as human beings, we think about all the challenges.
But imagination enables us to think about all the possibilities! What are all of the different ways that you can bring to life what you want to focus on? The possibilities are endless, just allow yourself to let your imagination run wild. Let it go, be free with it, dream crazy!
R, for Risk taking
The "R" stands for risk taking. If you want to create change, risks are inevitable. You have to get to that space where you know that's just part of it. You have to be comfortable with that.
You have to know that sometimes, comfort is the number one thing that gets in the way between who you are now or what you are now, and what you want to do. So you have to move comfort out of the way and take risks, however big or small. Just being comfortable doing that is also important.
S, for Start now
The "S" stands for "Start now". This really speaks to what I mentioned earlier. Too many of us just stay frozen, not wanting to take that step.
I think we have to operate in the urgency of now if we want to create change. Not be willing to wait.
What are we waiting for? Just start now.
When I look at change makers, they're operating in the now, they're ready to start now.
T, for Trust your instincts
The "T" stands for "Trust your instincts". As a change maker, I think we have to know what's authentic to us, we have to know our voice, we have to know our strengths and we need to be operating within that space, and let the power of our own authenticity shine.
That for me is my approach to change making. It's a combination of all those different things that working together, can help you drive change as a leader.
STELLA BIDA: This is a question I love to ask, because we've all been through that moment of childhood. If you had the 10-year-old version of yourself in front of you, what would you tell her?
SIMIDELE ADEAGBO: Let me think back to where I was when I was 10 years old. I was probably in Calgary, Canada. I think at that time, I already had started playing some level of sports.
In that 10 y.o. I see a lot of the same qualities that I see in myself now. This relentless drive, the work ethic.
My mum shares some stories with me, even though I don't remember all of them.
We were living in Canada at the time, where it can get very cold. One of the first sports that I played was softball. Softball is played outside in general. It was cold, it was snowing. She was telling me that practice was going to be canceled, because it was snowing.
I told her: “No, I am going to practice, snow or no snow”. She said that I marched out to practice, even though it was canceled.
I'm sharing that story because I still see that same girl today in me. I think that's the beauty of human beings when you look back. I think a lot of who we are is already baked in from that early age.
If there’s anything I would tell that girl, it would be: “Keep going, don't change, allow that part of yourself to flourish, to thrive, because that's what's going to get you far!”.
When I think about my successes and the things that I've accomplished, it's that drive and that work ethic that have made that possible. I would tell her too: “Keep showing up for practice, even when it's snowing. And listen to your mum too. Those qualities will get you a long way. Just know that you have what it takes already. Trust that belief, and let it take you far”.
STELLA BIDA: As a last question, what is the question that I've not asked, that you think would really help people to take that important first step that you mentioned earlier?
SIMIDELE ADEAGBO: A common question I think people have is: “What do you do about fear, when you're scared?”.
The answer I have to that is that fear is part of the process, and that's not going to go away. So just let fear live alongside you, but know that fear shouldn't distract you. We just have to learn to manage it.
I think it's good for us to be aware of the situation, the challenges that we're up against. But we also still have to move forward in spite of them. You have to know that fear is part of the process. Don't let fear win, don't let that distraction take over of where you're meant to be.
Let the fear be there, but just keep focused on where you want to go and take those steps even with the fear.
STELLA BIDA: Thank you for sharing that SImidele. It takes courage to acknowledge that human side of all of us, and recognize that Mr. fear is always there!
SIMIDELE ADEAGBO: Yes. It's not going to go away. After you've taken that step, even with the fear, you learn that things were not as bad as you’ve thought, and then it gets better and better.
This is coming from the person who had to go down a giant ice mountain, at 90 miles an hour! Of course, I was scared, fear was all over! It is a very daunting thing to do the sport that I do. It doesn't get easier at times. I'm more used to it, but there's still a lot of fear involved when I go down the track at times.
But over time, I've learned to manage that a lot better. Especially in the early days, I set small goals for myself. I managed my expectations around the outcomes and just learned to just do little things, one step at a time.
My first goal the first time I went down the track, was not to scream. I thought if I can make it, that is a win. That’s what I did. It was a terrible run, but I didn't scream, so I accomplished my goal! Then the fear got less and less, as I built more and more confidence. When you start building confidence, the fear starts decreases.
But if you don't take that first step, you'll never realize that, nor go through that process. Then the fear will just fill you completely up, but you have to take the steps and then it'll start minimizing as your confidence grows.
STELLA BIDA: Thank you Simidele for your openness in your sharings.
SIMIDELE ADEAGBO: No worries, thank you for the opportunity to share. I hope that whoever is hearing this, from wherever you are in the world, that you know that I am not "super human". I am a human being, just like everybody else.
I think action is the word that I would use that really helped me break the barriers that I've broken.
I try to just take the lessons from those hundred days, and make this a lifestyle now. I try to think like this now across everything that I do in life, really try to not let that fear hold me back. The fear of the unknown, the fear of the outcome, the fear of the failure. I rather take action and see what happens.
I'm not a "super human", I'm just a human being. I know that if I can do it, anyone out there can too.
STELLA BIDA: I'm sure that the people who are listening to you would like to know how they can continue following you. I know you're preparing also for the next Olympics games. So how can we cheer you?
I am training for my second Olympic games, which is coming up in less than a year, in February of 2022 in Beijing China. I'm really excited about that!
I've also taken up a new sport in addition to skeleton. I've taken up bobsled, and that is super exciting! I'm constantly trying to push the limits, to continue seeing what's possible for myself and push myself. So that's really exciting!
STELLA BIDA: Wonderful! We're so excited for you and we're looking forward to being part of your journey of self-discovery. Thank you so much for being part of the conversation.
SIMIDELE ADEAGBO: Thank you, thank you for having me, and wish you the very best on your continued journey as you share the Conversations of Excellence with the world!
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