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Canberra swimmer Habibat Ogunbanwo races to Russia on the road to Tokyo 2021

Before travelling nearly 14,000km from Canberra to Kazan in Russia next month, future Olympic swimmer Habibat Ogunbanwo is enjoying laps at her local, Stromlo Leisure Centre, and spending time with her family.

The 16-year-old St Clare’s College student qualified to swim for Nigeria at the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics and recently won a scholarship from the International Swimming Federation (FINA) to attend an elite training camp in the lead up to the rescheduled event.   

The camp in Kazan is designed to prepare young athletes for their Olympic debut, and Ogunbanwo said she saw it as an opportunity to “isolate and get my head straight”.

With the details of this year’s Tokyo Olympics still uncertain, Ogunbanwo is focused on what she can control – her training.

Habibat Ogunbanwo at her local pool, Stromlo Leisure Centre. Image: Kerrie Brewer

“Everything I’m doing now is for Tokyo,” she said.

“We don’t even know if it’s still going ahead, all you can do is just train and hope for the best.”

The Woden Valley Swim Club member doesn’t just compete in one stroke or distance, and this versatility helped her qualify for the world’s most prestigious sports competition.

“I’m still very young and my coach has told me not to specialise yet, so that’s why the Nigerian Federation was drawn towards me, ‘cos I can do everything basically.”

Swimming has taken Ogunbanwo around the world already; in 2018 at age 14 she attended her first international meet in China, and in 2019 she competed in South Korea and at the All-Africa Games in Morocco.

Methodical training and preparation ahead of big events gives her the confidence she needs to compete on the world stage.

“I’m not driven by the results, I’m driven by the process, and that really helps me when I’m behind the blocks,” Ogunbanwo said.

“I have faith in what I’ve been doing, so going to a race I’m thinking, ‘Well, I’ve done all this, I know I can do well.’”

Ogunbanwo was one of six Canberrans awarded an Audrey Fagan Young Women’s Enrichment Grant by the ACT Government in January 2021, which she will put towards expenses while training overseas this year.  

When announcing the winners, Minister for Women Yvette Berry said the grants aimed to increase women’s participation in decision-making and leadership roles now and into the future.   

Being of Muslim faith and part of the Nigerian diaspora, Ogunbanwo said there weren’t a lot of athletes, especially swimmers, raised in the same background as her when began swimming competitively at age 11.

“So I definitely want to be that role model for young African Muslims in Australia,” she said.

“When I actually started swimming a lot of Muslim people would come up to my dad and say ‘Oh, I don’t think she should swim, it doesn’t really align with our faith that much’.

“So that’s definitely something that I had to overcome throughout the years and take the leap.

“That’s the biggest obstacle I faced, in terms of the backlash, in terms of competitive swimming, and how that aligns with modesty in Islam.”

Within the Canberran swimming community, Ogunbanwo’s potential was apparent early on.

“My dad would always tell me that a lot of people came up to him and said, ‘This girl has a lot of talent, she can go far in swimming,’ and that motivated me to continue,” she said.

Looking to role models overseas, Ogunbanwo said she was inspired by African American gold medalist Simone Manuel and Jamaican Olympian Alia Atkinson.

At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Manuel became the first African American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in swimming, tying for gold in the 100-metre freestyle.

Atkinson set a world-first in 2014 when she became the first black woman to win a world swimming title at the Short Course World Championships in Doha.

“I’ve actually had a few conversations with her, and she’s just so inspiring. She works so hard,” Ogunbanwo said.

“That’s the path I want to take as well.”

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