After her hope of representing Nigeria at the Youth Olympics (Dakar 2022, now Dakar 2026) was dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, up-and-coming badminton player, Damilola Oyedepo, finally has a shot at showcasing her talent at the world level, after qualifying to represent the country at the 2023 FISU Summer World University Games from July 27 – August 8 in Chengdu, China.
She is among the 75 student-athletes from 22 universities who were selected at the trials organised by the Nigeria University Games Association in Benin City last month. The trials were for athletes who excelled at the 2022 NUGA Games at the University of Lagos, where Oyedepo was named the Most Valuable Player in the female category – in what was her first appearance at the Games.
The 16-year-old is a student of Human Kinetics at the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State and her journey into the game began playing badminton for fun while she was in secondary school.
“I took an interest in the game when I was in junior secondary school three. It was at the school dining hall that the court was marked and a senior of mine, Jumoke Obasanmi, a senior player in badminton, was being trained vigorously by coach Tunmise Olalehin. My friends and I were interested because it was new to us and we wanted to just play for fun, so, we regularly joined her for training,” Oyedepo told PUNCH Sports Extra.
“Later on, I started aiming higher and had to tell my senior that I wanted to join her in her training at the stadium because I felt the training in school was no longer enough for me. She told me to ask for permission at home and I started going to the stadium to train after school.”
What began as fun eventually turned out to be serious business after she won a silver medal at a junior competition. The excitement propelled her to train harder and not even the distance between her residence and the Ondo State Sports Complex in Azure could prevent her.
As young as she was, her academic performance in school was what secured the confidence of her parents to allow her to combine schooling and badminton.
“My parents were in support at first because they felt it was just for fun, but when they noticed that travelling from one state to another came up, they started going against it. But with time, they accepted the fact that I won’t stop no matter what and thereafter they’ve been a great supporter.
“Sometimes we’ll have to wait for lessons compulsorily at school so I couldn’t meet up with training time but my coach saw how determined I was to create time to make up for the lost time.”
According to her, the 2022 NUGA Games is the peak of her achievements so far, having been able to win a bronze medal in the singles event, as well as a silver medal in the doubles. She was also named the MVP in what was her first appearance at NUGA. Despite losing at the quarter-finals at last year’s National Sports Festival in Delta State, she also cherishes the experience.
Before competing at the university level, Oyedepo had been a shining light among her peers at the Ondo State Sports Complex, winning various competitions around the country, including two gold medals at the 2021 National Youth Games, one gold and one silver at the 2021 Police National Open, two gold medals at the 2021 All Racket School Games in Lagos, one gold medal at the 2021 U-17 South West Championship, among others.
Oyedepo has been setting her sights on a big break internationally, and her opportunity is finally here with the World University Games some weeks away.
“I have been dreaming of the World University Games and since I’ve qualified, I have been training relentlessly to have a singles medal for Team Nigeria. I’m always prepared to face any competition, national or international, with the help of my coach, coach Tunmise Olalehin,” she said.
Currently ranked No.12 in Nigeria’s senior rankings, the young Oyedepo is striving for more in the league of elite badminton players in Nigeria. She said her target is the number one position and to be the first Nigerian female badminton player to be among the first 20 in the world rankings.