“If You Can Take One Step…You Can Take Two.”
This is a phrase my best friend repeatedly said to me growing up, and these words still remain close to my heart. However, just being able to take that first step was truly a gift from God. Growing up in Zaria, Nigeria, the basic amenities of everyday life, which almost seem like a birthright in the United States, weren’t an option. Electricity and running water didn’t come with the rented home my parents still live in today, but thankfully my 11 siblings did. As the only child in my family to fulfill the dream of one day living in the U.S, my journey was littered with challenges and roadblocks from the very start.
I contracted malaria at age three; a life-threatening disease given the limited medical system in our city. After an inexperienced nurse gave me a shot to fight the malaria, the needle went in too deep and broke off in my bone. At that point my road to recovery became a situation that left me fighting for my life and the aftermath from this mistake left me in a coma for three days. When I awoke … I had contracted polio due to the unsanitary condition in the hospital and was paralyzed from the waist down.
My left leg remains paralyzed, but I regained strength in my right leg from countless hours of therapy and encouragement (eventually) from others. While my doctor recommended against therapy due to future health complications, my determination greatly outweighed his concerns.
My late father, Adolphus Adeyi Ogbe, an amazing man and role model, didn’t allow my future challenges alter the way he would raise me. He didn’t allow me take to the streets as a shoe-shiner (aka beggar) as many fathers would have, but instead placed me in school at the age of three because he understood education would one day be my savior. He instilled in me that channeling a relentless attitude towards hard work and education would forever prevent boundaries around the wonderful things opportunities could provide. I never once budged on his philosophy, which soon became mine, because self-pity wasn’t an option.
In a wheelchair or on crutches until the age of 11, it wasn’t going to anchor me to a lesser life or prevent me from doing what other kids my age were doing. For example, soccer was a way of life in Nigeria so I played goalkeeper at every opportunity. However, I finally realized the athleticism I was blessed with could be showcased in different sports. After I received a fitted chair, the javelin, discus and shot put quickly became my passions and success at my very first national competition in Lagos in my teens began to open my window of opportunity.
Future success allowed me to proudly represent Nigeria in international competitions, and it was during a meet when my abilities caught the eye of the head track and field coach from Bellarmine University in Louisville, Ky. He offered me a partial scholarship to attend Bellarmine as a student-athlete and words couldn’t express my feelings when I received this gift. A lifetime of persistence in the classroom and on the athletic field had paid off, and I was now moving from Nigeria to Kentucky to start a new life and chase new dreams. I was finally coming to America.
Today, so many of the dreams I imagined as a little boy in Nigeria have aligned themselves with the lofty expectations I set for myself years ago. Professionally, it has not come easy as I had to work four jobs to help pay the balance on my undergrad tuition. I began my career at Brown-Forman as an intern during my undergrad years, worked as a temporary employee after school, and now my current role is Corporate HR Specialist for the North America Region. I like to say the winds purposefully blew me to a place as wonderful as Brown-Forman even though I looked, walked, and talked differently than my colleagues. They embraced me and I knew at that point what heaven must feel like because I had found my home.
Paul Varga has said countless times we’re a company that builds amazing brands and even more amazing people. It’s a culture that genuinely rewards every aspect of diversity, and also one where colleagues double as family. A special day I celebrated with my wife, Dyan, and one-year-old daughter, MaryLou, was on February, 12, 2010. On this day I officially became an American citizen and my colleagues threw a citizenship party for me at work. Melinda King, my direct boss, did something that I believe represents B-F at its finest: she worked with our B-F Government Relations department to have a specific American flag fly above the U.S. capital in Washington in my honor to commemorate my citizenship. This is yet another example of Brown-Forman’s willingness to take the extra step that makes a positive difference in the lives of its employees.
Sports certainly didn’t end when my career at Brown-Forman began. My colleagues, managers, and the entire community have supported me in my quest to participate in the Paralympics. A member of the U.S. Paralympics team, I’ve been training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Ca. and am the U.S. record holder in shot put (13.16 meters) and discus (52.77 meters). If I had competed in the Beijing Paralympics with personal bests I would have medaled in these events! When Nigeria asked me to represent their country during the Beijing Olympic/Paralympic games, I declined because I wanted to compete for the U.S. team and my American citizenship wasn’t official. Now, as a proud American citizen, I look forward to competing while wearing the red, white and blue!
On September 10th of this year the U.S. Olympic Committee will announce which athletes will represent our country at the World Championships in New Zealand, and I anticipate being selected as a participant. If I perform well in this competition I expect to be selected for the 2012 Paralympic games in London. Currently ranked #1 in the world in the discus, the U.S. Olympic Committee has placed me in the “A Standard” which means I’m viewed as an elite athlete with medal potential. As you can imagine it’s a very exciting time for the Ogbe’s!
My path, beset with obstacles nearly from the start, has truly been thousands of miles in the making. The sweat and tears required to overcome these obstacles makes me feel like I’ve walked every one of those miles, but looking back on it now I wouldn’t change a thing. While my finish line is yet thousands of miles on the horizon, when I one day cross it I won’t be alone. I will be holding hands with all those who have helped me over the years: God; father; family; dear friends; and colleagues at Brown-Forman.
(This was originally published on Brown-Foreman.com)