Samuel Ikpefan is a trailblazer.
At Beijing 2022, he will become the first-ever Nigerian skier to participate at an Olympic Winter Games. The native of Annemasse in France has already written himself into the history books by representing the most populous country in Africa at the World Cross Country Ski Championships and World Cup.
It’s been a unique journey and one that has captured the attention of some of the most famous cross-country skiers. Now, with his ultimate goal in sight, the 29-year-old hopes to inspire young Nigerians to take up skiing.
Nigeria is fast getting accustomed to the Olympic Winter Games. Four years after PyeongChang 2018, where their athletes competed in skeleton and bobsleigh, Africa's most populous country will be represented by a skier at Beijing 2022. His name is Samuel Ikpefan and he will compete in the cross-country skiing competition.
As was the case at the World Cup and World Championships last winter, Ikpefan will be the first skier to wear Nigeria’s green suit at the Olympic Winter Games.
"I am so proud to represent Nigeria", he told Olympics.com.
The native of Annemasse in the French Alps had to wait until 2018 to start out on this journey, when he obtained a Nigerian passport and with it the right to represent the country of his father. It helped the French youth sprint champion build a stronger connection with a culture that has always been a big part of his life in France.
"With the food or the music, I have always been immersed in the Nigerian culture," he explained.
The choice to represent Nigeria also allowed him to relaunch his career as a cross-country skier. Having progressed through the French system, the skier from Pays Rochois initially decided to put his career on hold when the doors to the French team closed in front of him in 2011. However, upon returning to skiing five years later, Ikpefan realised that his dual nationality allowed him to compete for Nigeria.
It was the beginning of a great adventure.
Demonstrating roller skiing on Nigerian television
After spending time researching, he found out about a ski federation in Nigeria. "I didn't know. I was so surprised," he reflected.
After getting in contact with the federation, the skier was presented with a challenge. The vice-president was keen to test the resolve of this French-born skier and asked him to travel to Nigeria with his roller skis to take part in a demonstration. Rising to the challenge, Ikpefan travelled to Nigeria for the first time in his life.
"It was huge, it touched me,” he said. “I saw my father again for the first time in a year as he moved there for his retirement. When I walked on Nigerian soil, I started to get emotional. Some tears came to my eyes."
While in Nigeria, the skier was greeted unexpectedly by a large crowd and when it was time for him to meet the vice-president of the Nigerian skiing federation, a number of journalists came to cover the event. The demonstration was broadcast on national television and took place in the 60,000-seater Abuja National Stadium - the same venue that hosts the Nigerian football team.
Having put on a persuasive demonstration of his skill, the athlete earned the right to represent Nigeria in international competitions. At FIS races and the Alpine Cup, people were curious when they noticed his Nigerian suit. But they were soon convinced of his skill when he began to perform.
In January 2021, he participated in the first World Cup of his career in Falun, Sweden. There, he competed alongside the greatest cross-country skiers in the world, including Alexander Bolshunov, winner of four Olympic medals at PyeongChang 2018, who took time out to ask him how everything had gone after the race.
Finding the next generation for Milano Cortina 2026
Weeks later, Ikpefan was one of two Africans competing at the cross-country world championships. It was a great honour for him and justification for the fact that, despite difficulties and sacrifices, he never gave up.
"I am proud to have the chance to represent an African nation at the Olympic Games," said Ikpefan, who grew up in a family of athletes that includes a rugby playing brother, Daniel.
Ikpefan now hopes that his journey can inspire a new generation, as he works hard to help others follow his path to Milano Cortina 2026.
“For Milano Cortina 2026, I was appointed captain of a team composed of three young skiers that are from Nigeria but live in other countries. [My role was] to explain to them the process and to help them on their Olympic journey.”
At the same time, he hopes to capitalise on the excitement surrounding his participation at the Olympic Winter Games in order to popularise roller skiing in Nigeria.
"As there is no snow there, I want to make this sport known, especially among those who practice rollerblading. And why not send a delegation to the World Summer Roller Ski Championships and participate in international competitions?"
With 250 million inhabitants, a young population, and trailblazers like Ikpefan showing them the way, Nigeria have a strong foundation that will hopefully enable them to participate at the Olympic Winter Games for many editions to come.