Sunday, October 21, 2012

Interview with Johnathan Akinyemi: Pain is Temporary

This may be a little late, but if you didn't hear before, you must have heard by now. This year, Nigeria had its first Olympic Athlete performing in rowing sports. Johnathan Akinyemi represented his country in Canoe Slalom at the 2012 London Olympics. I got a chance to catch up with him, and we had laughs and serious moments. But I must say, I was impressed with him as a person and as an athlete.

Eights & Weights: Congrats on getting to participate in the Olympics! It must be a relief now that it’s all over.
Johnathan: Yes, right after the Olympics, I took a couple of weeks to just relax. But I’m already getting into training for Rio and it’s getting pretty serious again there.

Eights & Weights: You actually start training about 4 years before? I’m fascinated with Olympians and how much effort goes into preparing, but I don’t think most people know that you start training 4 years before.
Johnathan: Yes, it’s basically this 4-year cycle with goals and objectives along the way. But as you said, that’s our lives, training for the Olympics. That’s why it was really disappointing when I got the 50-second time. Because you see that 4 years of training just slipping away. And then you have to start again for the next 4 years. I quite enjoy the ramping up bit, getting back into training and building that focus for the big games. I mean, there are races along the way, but the Olympics is the biggest event. It’s what makes the Olympics special.

Eights & Weights: So along the way, how many other professional events do you get involved in besides the Olympics? I think the average reader does not hear too much about all the other events.
Johnathan: With the kayak circuit, there is the World Cup Series, and that is 5 races in different locations around the world, mainly in Europe. And then there’s the World Championships each year.  There’s also a domestic premiership league in the UK, and I race in the highest league in the UK. So those are the big races in the season. It’s quite difficult to do both the domestic league and the international races, like racing for Nigeria, because timing usually clashes. But my main focus is the international circuit.

Eights & Weights: So tell me about yourself and your history. How did you get into kayaking?
Johnathan: Basically, I accidentally got into kayaking. I used to be really fascinated with motorbikes, like magazines and everything. I always really wanted a motorbike. And so I think my mum and dad, thinking that was too dangerous, found a way to steer me away from motorbikes by buying me a canoe. It worked though. I started getting more into it and racing on the whitewater, and then competing in the domestic divisions in the UK. I just loved it and it’s been a passion ever since.

Eights & Weights: Haha! But that’s not any less dangerous.
Johnathan: Exactly. I think it’s quite ironic how they tried to steer me away from ‘dangerous’ motorbikes by getting me involved in whitewater kayaking.

Eights & Weights: So how did you get involved in the international circuit?
Johnathan: Racing internationally started with me competing with Team GB as a junior. I did quite well; I was British Junior National Champion when I was in my final year as a junior, and then I came 14th in the Europeans, which was quite a good result. But it was really when I went to Nigeria for the first time in 2007 after my junior career that things changed. 

I was raised to always be proud of my Nigerian heritage, but it was when I actually went back that I experienced the atmosphere, the people, I felt really connected to it and decided I wanted to represent Nigeria. We worked with the rowing federation to establish a canoeing federation to compete, and it’s been such a great experience. It’s been one of the best decisions of my canoeing career to switch to represent Nigeria. I’m very proud.

Eights & Weights: Well, we’re proud of you too. But sincerely, I can’t imagine how it felt like to be the first to represent a country at the Olympics for a particular sport. What has the reception been like?
Johnathan: Because it is kind of a new thing in Nigeria, it’s more like curiosity, which is good. If people are curious, then maybe we would be able to get more youngsters involved in the sport. But especially at the games, I felt a big weight on my shoulders being the first to represent Nigeria in Canoe Slalom. I felt like lot of people were watching to learn what the sport was about. So it was a pity that I couldn’t have got farther in the competition. But it is my first Olympics and a lot of the other competitors were more seasoned so hopefully, at the next one, I’ll be more experienced as well.
The Olympic Committee in Nigeria has also taken a bit more notice of the sport since I qualified, and gotten behind me a lot more.

Eights & Weights: On Twitter, there was some hype about this new fellow representing the country for the first time in Canoe Slalom, and basically everyone was asking what Canoe Slalom was, supporting, and rallying behind you.
Johnathan: That’s what I thought was so great about Nigeria; people rallying behind me. That’s why I would have loved to go a little further. I thought that people were going to be annoyed at me really. There was a point after the race where I thought I couldn’t carry on doing this, but because the response was so positive, and because people kept saying how proud they were of me, it helped me bounce back. Now, when I’m having a bad day, sometimes I look back at some of those messages, especially on Twitter, and it helps me regain my focus as I train for Rio in 2016.

Eights & Weights: It's amazing what support can do. Since the Olympics have been over, have you got any endorsement deals? How has the Olympics affected your professional life?
Johnathan: Since I qualified in February, I have been focused fully on the sport, and raising money to train for the Olympics, which can be really expensive. I haven’t got any endorsement deals yet, but I’m hoping to get some funding from the Sports Commission or some sponsorship deals. But because canoeing is not the best known sport in the world, it is pretty tough to get sponsorship deals. It’s quite tricky. Because we need to raise money, we have to work, and then sometimes you find yourself not as focused on canoeing as you would want. It’s not the ideal situation for training. So I’m currently looking for sponsorship and throwing all my effort into training for Rio. (Ahem... Nike take note... The boy needs some endorsements)

Eights & Weights: Do you train in the UK? I’m not sure how developed Nigeria is in training for whitewater sports.
Johnathan: Well, training in Nigeria is still in the development phase. We’ve got boats out in Lagos, which we mainly use on the flat water. But at the moment, we have not got any whitewater training, so I may need to go out in December to like the Calabar region to try to find some whitewater that is suitable for training. 

My training is based in the UK right now. There are about 4 different man-made whitewater facilities in the UK, which is really good for training. And then typically, in the winter, I would head over to South Africa to train to escape the cold weather over here. There are about 2 training camps down there. In the summer, it gets pretty crazy just following the World Cup Series, wherever the races happen to be that year.

Eights & Weights: So what did your typical training regimen look like while you were training for the Olympics? I’m an avid exerciser but I’ve tried those rowing machines at the gym and they are not easy!
Johnathan: Laughs.. It's hard work. Two months before the Olympics, all my main training was in the canoe. I did recessions on the whitewater and then cardio work on the flat water. We put resistance on the boats. And then we occasionally did some weight sessions to especially work on the core, abs, and back, and of course big arm exercises.

Eights & Weights: Do you have a similar training regimen now?
Johnathan: That was in season. Right now, I’ll be more in the gym working on my general fitness. I basically get up in the morning at about 6:30, and focus more on cardio, using equipment like the  treadmill or rowing machines, just to burn calories because we still have to keep the weight off when in the canoe. And then I’ll work my upper body and core with big weights and low reps to build a lot of power. The keys ones I like to do are the bench press, bench pull, and weighted chin-ups. There’s also a lot of work I have to do for my shoulders also to prevent injury as well because you’re very physical on your shoulders in the whitewater.

So it’s basically 3 sessions a day: cardio, weights, and then hit the boats to work on the technical areas because it’s a very technical sport.

Eights & Weights: What about nutrition?
Johnathan: In terms of nutrition, because I want to be as lean as possible for canoeing, it is important to watch what I eat. In the evenings, it’s more lean protein and less carbs. But I usually eat a big lunch with pastas and rice to keep up my energy for my workouts. In the morning, I try to have a good breakfast: yogurt, fruits, or cereal. But because boats are made for a specific weight (mine is made for a 78kg person), it is important to watch your weight if you are into canoeing.

Eights & Weights: Well, I didn’t know boats were made for specific weights? That’s something new and interesting.

Eights & Weights: Okay, so you’re training for Rio, we know that. But what is the next big thing we can catch you on in the near future?
Johnathan: Now, the season is closing for 2012. I’ll be racing the British Open in November so I’ll keep you posted on the results. But the next big race is the Cardiff World Cup, which is scheduled for next June. That’s the next big one to watch out for.

Eights & Weights: Now, what people REALLY want to know. What is something personal that you think people would be surprised to know about you?
Johnathan: Let me think about that one. See if this was like a corporate setting, I would have been able to say “Well, I’ve been to the Olympics”. Hmmm… You’d probably be surprised how much chocolate I eat. I didn’t include that in my nutrition regimen earlier…Laughs… I love my chocolate. I had to cut it out right before the Olympics, but for an athlete, you’d be surprised how much of a sweet tooth I have. My favorite is a Mars bar. And I like to eat it in a weird way too, like eat all the chocolate from the outside and slowly strip off each layer one by one.


If you'd like to learn more about Johnathan (he likes to go by Johny), visit his site, or follow him on Twitter.

Cheers Eights & Weights!

Photo credit:,

1 comment:

  1. Excellent interview!! Learned so much and got inspired too!


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