Story by Carla Carlton
Dennis Ogbe grips the discus in his right hand. He swings his arm a few times, then twists at the waist as far to the left as he can. With one explosive move and a guttural cry he snaps back, letting the saucer fly.
Upper-body strength is important for any discus thrower, but for Ogbe, it is everything. His left leg paralyzed and stunted by childhood polio, he lacks the balance that would allow him to spin 360 degrees before throwing. Instead, he leans against a special frame and propels the discus with 180 degrees of power.
It’s tougher, yes. But Ogbe has never been one to shy away from a challenge, from willing himself to walk again, to making his way from Nigeria to the United States to get an education and to landing a job at a Fortune 500 company. He credits the discipline he learned from athletics.
“If I look at my life, without sports I wouldn’t be here. Sports is the pushing factor, that competitiveness… I’ve applied it to everything in life. I have a goal or a vision, and then I start walking toward it. Each time I set a record, beat a record – I know I can do more. And that push of ‘I can do more’ is what brought me to where I am today.”
Where he is today is sitting at the very top of the world rankings in his discus event and, having become a U.S. citizen in February, preparing to represent the United States in the International Paralympic World Championships in New Zealand at the end of this month.
“The category is very competitive. There are some very good international throwers – they are probably Dennis’ equal. But I’ll put my money on Dennis,” says Bellarmine track and field coach Jim Vargo, who helped bring Ogbe from Nigeria to Bellarmine, where he threw discus, shot put and javelin.
“He is so motivated and so focused, and this is his first opportunity to represent the U.S. at a major competition. I can see him rising to yet another level to win, as a way to say thank you for the opportunities he’s been given.”
“Whatever I am saying, whatever I do, I hope and pray it isgoing to inspire people, and not just people with disabilities. It is like a challenge to them: ‘If Dennis can do it, I can do it.’ ”
The ‘it factor’
Gratitude is the other thread that runs through Ogbe’s life. In conversation, he repeatedly turns attention away from himself to focus on those who have helped him in his journey – his parents, his friends, the Bellarmine community, his church, God.
It has not been an easy path. When he was 3, Ogbe came down with malaria. A nurse at a Nigerian clinic broke a needle off in his back, and he fell into a coma that lasted for three days. Taken to a larger hospital, he regained consciousness but also contracted polio, which paralyzed both of his legs.
He went home in a “grungy old wheelchair,” unable to walk. He credits his recovery to “a therapy that no doctor would give me” – the taunts of the other children in his village who moved their soccer games to higher ground when he rolled up. “I thought maybe if I used my crutches and my calipers, even if I’m just standing, at least I have that thrill that I’m playing with my friends. But even with that, the kids would dare me – they would take my crutches and say, ‘Take two steps, take three steps, then you can play with us.’”
Through the intervention of Masai Ujiri, a lifelong friend who is now the general manager of the Denver Nuggets, Ogbe was allowed to play. “On and off, my right leg got better and better and stronger. My left leg got weaker and weaker.” Eventually, he could walk without crutches or a cane, although he has a limp and balance remains an issue.
Ogbe played basketball in high school and college, mastering the 3-point shot. “That became my specialty. When the team is in trouble, that’s when they put me in. When they pass me the ball and I square to the basket, it’s a sure three-point shot. I would go in, deliver what I have to do and come out.”
But it was in track and field that he would make his mark. During tryouts for the Paralympic Games, he excelled in shot put, discus and javelin. He was throwing for Nigeria at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, when he met Vargo, who was an assistant track and field coach for the USA.
Ogbe and his teammate, Vitalis Lanshima, a sprinter who had lost both arms in a childhood accident, told Vargo that their dream was to come to the United States and get an American education. “At the Paralympics, you meet these unbelievably talented people with an incredible desire not to let what most of us would consider a significant disability to inhibit what they want in life,” said Vargo, who has been involved with Paralympics since 1990. “They are doing things that most of us wouldn’t even think are possible. They are very intelligent, very driven to be successful. They have the ‘it factor’ – the qualities that will make a very talented student-athlete.
“Dennis and Vitalis had that it factor. I felt strongly, with my experience, that it would be well worth the effort to help them. Long past their time here, people would remember those young men and who they were and what they did, and Bellarmine would be a better institution for it.”
In 2002, Ogbe and Lanshima came to Bellarmine on partial athletic scholarships, bolstered financially by the Church of Christ and others in the community. “I got the ball rolling and got things going,” Vargo said, “but there were so many people who picked up the baton and ran with it, to use the track and field cliché. When Dennis and Vitalis became better-known on campus, their desire was so infectious that you wanted to do anything you could to help them succeed.”
Coming to Bellarmine “was a big culture shock to me. I didn’t talk, look, walk or do anything like anybody,” Ogbe says. “But I was accepted on my Day One. The whole track and field team rallied around me and the coach introduced me. Before you know it, it became my second home.”
“This is his first opportunity to represent the U.S. at a major
competition. I can see him rising to yet another level to win, as
a way to say thank you for the opportunities he’s been given.”
—Bellarmine track and field coach Jim Vargo
Even with his disability, Ogbe was very competitive in his track and field events, Vargo said. “He was competing at a very solid college level. He could throw with our best throwers.” And his work ethic galvanized the other team members. “When people see that – if he is out there every day and doesn’t miss a practice, and is able to do this despite a significant disability – it’s like, none of the rest of you have any excuse,” Vargo said.
“I am very passionate in anything I do,” Ogbe said. “At the end of the day, I don’t want people to pity me. Whatever I am saying, whatever I do, I hope and pray it is going to inspire people, and not just people with disabilities. It is like a challenge to them: ‘If Dennis can do it, I can do it.’ ”
But Ogbe had struggles of his own. “I guess I’d never met anybody who was facing such big challenges – being so far from home, learning a new culture and trying to meet the demands of a different university system. And everything came together, all at one time,” said Cathy Sutton, dean of academic advising.
In her English 101 class, she saw him “working, revising, trying to develop his English skills. He wanted As, and he started off with Cs, or worse. There were days he was so overwhelmed and so down and so exhausted. But he never, ever stopped putting one foot in front of the other.”
He spent so much time in a small study room next to the Academic Resource Center in the library that staff started calling it “Dennis’ Office,” she said. “I remember the first time he made the dean’s list; it was like he’d won a big trophy.”
When he wasn’t studying or training, Ogbe was working at one of five part-time jobs to meet his expenses. Vargo recalled hearing him singing and whistling as he cleaned the tennis courts at 6 a.m.
“That was me singing for joy, thinking of my dad,” Ogbe said. “Most of what I do today was instilled in me by my family. My mom had no education whatsoever; my dad had very little. But he always said that what he cannot do, his children will do it. (Ogbe is one of 12 children.) He has passed now to be with the Lord in 2004, but what he said is coming true. When I think of him, it gives me more courage.”
Ogbe earned his degree in business administration in 2006 and began working on his MBA. He wasn’t sure where he would go next, but he applied himself to his courses with his typical determination. A chance encounter would lead him to a career. Some would call it a coincidence. Ogbe calls it “a miracle.”
Dana Allen was driving to a Christmas party in 2006 when she saw a young man in a big gray wool coat carrying several Kroger bags in the snowy slush along Norris Place. “He had a big smile, but he was clearly struggling.” Something made her turn back and offer Dennis Ogbe a ride to his apartment just off campus. Learning he was an international student far from home, the Brown-Forman executive gave him her card and invited him to join her family for Christmas Eve Mass.
“Then I went on to my party, and I said, ‘I just had this weird encounter.’ Everyone said, ‘You can’t go around giving people you don’t know rides!’ But I just felt like it was supposed to happen.” Ogbe did spend Christmas Eve with Allen’s family, and then became an unofficial part of it. “I call her my American mom,” he said. Allen connected him with Brown-Forman, where he held a series of part-time jobs before being hired full-time in 2009 as a human resources specialist for the North American region. And she stood with him when he married his wife, Dyan ’04, with whom he has a 2-year-old daughter, Mary Lou.